The Kremlin halted the signing of a border treaty, scheduled for April 2005, after the Latvian government decided to complement the treaty with a historical and legal declaration, containing a reference to the 1920 treaty signed between Soviet Russia and Latvia.
Latvian officials said the interpretive declaration was not directly connected with the border treaty, but was designed to relieve tensions and simplify the document's ratification. Moscow, however, viewed it as Latvia's intention to rekindle the territorial dispute over Abrene/Pytalovo.
The issue sparked off a heated debate. We would not give them an inch of the Pytalovo district, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
As time went by, Moscow and Riga toned down their statements. Russian diplomats hinted to the Latvian colleagues on a number of occasions that the border treaty could be signed if the unilateral declaration was withdrawn. However, they did not consider the possibility of changing the treaty's wording, because this would have drawn out its coordination for years.
Has anything changed in the past 18 months?
Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks, who played a major role in the formulation of the declaration, have kept their seats. Moreover, the recent parliamentary election has brought more radical nationalists, staunch opponents of treaties with Russia, to the ruling coalition.
Latvian analysts believe that the involvement of nationalist-minded politicians in the government's affairs will facilitate rather than hamper the agreement with Russia.
They say that had the government included members of the Accord Center, which is supported by Russian speaking voters, the revocation of the declaration would have looked like a victory of the leftwing forces and a betrayal of the national idea by the People's Party.
For now, the prime minister and the foreign minister (both members of the People's Party) can shift the bulk of responsibility for this vital foreign policy decision to their partners in the coalition.
Latvia's radical nationalists cannot be happy with the possibility of being viewed as party to normalizing relations with Russia. The frame-up can cost them dearly, the smallest payment being debates on their immediate removal from the cabinet.
On the other hand, words may never be translated into decisions, and the future of the border treaty remains vague. The recent statement by Kalvitis on the possibility of signing the treaty without the unilateral declaration has provoked a mixed reaction in the local press, especially Latvian-language newspapers, whose opinion even the People's Party has to consider.
Much remains to be done to ensure the signing of the treaty. Its opponents, notably nationalists and their allies in the union of environmentalists and farmers, such as journalist Visvaldis Lacis, a former SS legionnaire, and ultra-rightwing politician Leopolds Ozolins, have threatened to appeal to the Constitutional Court if the People's Party signs the treaty.
Russia has also taken note of the Latvian prime minister's initiative, which provoked a broad response, ranging from warnings of a new political provocation to efforts to maximally speed up the incipient normalization of bilateral relation.
However, the attempts to turn the first signs of a thaw in Russian-Latvian relations into sunny weather overnight can have an opposite effect, complicating the position of the proponents of the treaty. Moreover, certain groups of people in both countries believe that Latvia and Russia have survived without warm bilateral relations for 15 years and can easily do without them in the future.
Unfortunately, improving relations with Russia is not one of Latvia's objectives. The policy of the ruling coalition is contradictory, and it sometimes seems that the more strained bilateral ties, the better for Russian and Latvian businessmen.
The lack of cooperation between the two countries' security departments and financial audit institutions allows criminals to use "grey" schemes they invented years ago.
The same applies to the "firm defenders" of the national interests of Russian speakers and Letts from all kinds of radical parties. To them, the normalization of Russian-Latvian relations will amount to losing their bread and butter.