President Clinton's visit to Latvia today, the first of an American president to a Baltic republic, celebrates the success of Washington's half-century refusal to recognize Soviet absorption of the Baltics. The formality maintained by every administration beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt's, which for so long seemed a forlorn fantasy, is vindicated by facts today.
Not only are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia free and independent. They are the most stable politically and successful economically of the former Soviet republics. They endured shock therapy and made it work. They may not be appropriate models for Russia because they are small and have help from foreign friends. Estonia is the most successful, because it is the smallest and enjoys the most attention from Finland and Sweden, as almost a Nordic country.
But the leaders of the three republics greeting Mr. Clinton in the Latvian capital of Riga will not be triumphal. History teaches them to fear the living Russian bear no less than the expired Soviet dragon. Although most of the former Soviet troops that infested those republics are withdrawn, some remain in Latvia and Estonia, and because of Russian disputes with the latter country, threaten to remain beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.
Civil discord is most a threat in Latvia, where virtually half the people are ethnically Russian, their civil rights and citizenship not assured by the nationalist fervor of government. Moscow retains an interest in protecting them.
Their appeal is the same Mr. Clinton will hear starting tonight in Warsaw, from Polish President Lech Walesa and others who are now more popular. Newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe want Western security guarantees against Russia or the Soviet Union or whatever it may be called in the future. The catch is that Russia, beset by nationalistic and paranoid forces let loose by its own economic turmoil, fears the Cold War is still on and that NATO is encircling its borders.
President Clinton's diplomacy has been adroit so far at imposing compromises on NATO's relations with the East that reassure both sides of this conundrum. Mr. Clinton must welcome this trip away from Washington, where other foreign policy matters continually frustrate him.
Mr. Clinton is likely to descend on Naples for the Group of Seven summit of industrial world leaders, fortified by receptions in Riga and Warsaw where the American president, regardless of name or party, is still seen as hero and savior. There he will see President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, an observer but not member of the Seven, whom he must convince that any assurances to Balts and Poles are non-threatening to Russia. Mr. Clinton stands a better chance of leading Europe to satisfactory handling of this thorny issue than of Bosnia, and he needs a success at something.