Source AP ©

Latvia and Russia come to agreement on border deal

Latvia and Russia on Tuesday signed a long-awaited border treaty after a decade of bitter disagreements.

The two countries had previously failed to reach a border deal due to differences over treatment of Latvia's large ethnic Russian minority and over a swath of land that belonged to Latvia between the two world wars but is now part of Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Latvian counterpart, Maris Riekstins, said the deal represented the beginning of more constructive relations between the neighbors.

"I am confident that the signing of the border agreements ... will go far toward improving bilateral relations," Lavrov told a press conference.

The two sides also concluded an agreement on providing social security payments to Russian pensioners living in Latvia and maintaining Soviet war graves in the Baltic state. Lavrov said there were 10 more bilateral agreements in the pipeline and that both countries had shown a willingness to tackle them.

Differences between the neighbors remain, however. Lavrov said the existence of Latvia's non-citizens - ethnic Russians who do not have the right to vote or hold public office - is "not normal" and that Russia would continue to work with international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to put pressure on Latvia to grant them citizenship?

There are approximately 400,000 non-citizens living in Latvia, while ethnic Russians account for one-third of the country's 2.3 population.

Nationalist Latvians have been critical of the border deal because the treaty acknowledges that the Pytalovo district - known as Abrene in Latvia - that was seized by the Soviet Union after World War II, is now forever part of Russia.

Latvia, an independent state until 1940, was occupied by Soviet troops after World War II but regained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The United States welcomed the border agreement. "By this action, Russia and Latvia have together taken a historic step in support of constructive regional relations," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement.

Estonia, another Baltic state, is now the only Eastern European member of the European Union that does not have a border treaty with Russia.