Russia may stop shipping exports through the Baltic states over coming years as it upgrades its own ports, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin said July 20 during a visit to Latvia. Levitin said that Moscow aims to boost the capacity of Russia's northwestern ports, such as Murmansk, by 30%-40%, and that the move would leave them able to handle all the country's export cargoes, the Baltic News Service (BNS) reported.

The ports of Latvia and its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania have remained important outlets for Russian exports since the three countries broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Political relations between the Baltic states and their former overlord have often been rocky since they regained their independence after five decades of Soviet occupation, and tensions have sometimes had an impact on trade.

Estonia was the most recent state to feel the pinch, after rail transit trade volumes to its ports fell sharply in the wake of a bitter dispute with Russia over Tallinn's decision to move a Soviet-era war memorial from the center of the capital.

The Baltic states, which joined the EU in 2004, are also crucial conduits for road-borne trade to and from Russia, and Latvia in particular has been struggling with the knock on effects.

Truckers at the Latvian-Russian border often find themselves stuck in queues of more than 1,000 vehicles on the Latvian side, and both drivers and local residents are growing increasingly exasperated.

On July 16, a group of jammed truckers from Lithuania staged a protest at the Latvian-Russian border, parking their vehicles across the entire highway. Levitin said Russia aims to increase the number and capacity of its border posts in an effort to smooth and increase road trade in the region. Latvia has also pledged to upgrade its own infrastructure.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007