The choices for the Baltic states

To sing a different song: the choices for the Baltic states

James Kurth

In the northeastern corner of Europe, there can be found the three small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although there have been long periods of time when they have been forgotten by the rest of Europe, the Baltics have actually been part of Western civilization for more than eight hundred years, and they have had a way of periodically breaking into the consciousness, and the conscience, of the West. Today, they are on the eastern frontiers of the newly expanded NATO and the soon-to-be expanded European Union. As such, they pose major foreign policy questions for the United States.

I had first visited the Baltic states in August 1989, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which had condemned them to Soviet rule, and at a time when they were rapidly re-establishing their national identities and autonomy. I visited Estonia and Latvia again last August, on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of their declarations of independence from the dying Soviet Union. What I found was not only a contrast between the romance of independence of 1989 and the realities of independence in 1998, but also a contrast between three different ways of looking at those realities.

The Baltic states should be viewed through three different prisms or perspectives, each revealing a particular reality about these countries today. These prisms are of the national, the Russian and the Western (especially the American) realities. Each of these prisms yields its own distinct narrative about what has happened in the Baltics in the past decade and its own distinct projection of what will happen in the decade to come. Each prism focuses upon a particular sector of the economy and upon a particular kind of politics. The interactions between the three realities give rise to the policy issues that are at the center of political debates about the Baltic states today. The most important of these issues for Americans is the question of “the second round” of NATO expansion. In this essay I shall deal only with the two countries that I visited last year.

The National Tale

Viewed through the national prism, the Baltic states offer a narrative that is surely among the most extraordinary and most moving in human history. It is a story that is romantic, heroic and even epic.

The national tale begins in the nineteenth century, when the Estonian and Latvian peoples – then really only peasant communities – were under the harsh political rule of the Russian Empire and the harsh economic exploitation of German landlords. As with the other subject peoples of Eastern Europe at that time, the Estonians and Latvians formed an identity around their newly written languages. But they also each added a remarkable feature to this process of national identity formation. This was the national song festival, in which, every five years or so, thousands of ordinary people would gather together in giant choruses to sing traditional (and also newly written) folk songs. Even more than Verdi’s operas for the developing Italian national identity and Wagner’s operas for the German one, the song festival, “the singing nation”, was at the center of the new Estonian and Latvian national identities.

In the fullness of time (and with the play of fate), the First World War brought about the collapse of the Russian Empire and the dispossession of the German landlords in Estonia and Latvia. After heroic and victorious battles against the Red Army of the new Soviet state, these small nations established their own independent republics between 1918 and 1920.

During the ensuing period of national independence (1918-40), the Baltic states shared some of the darker qualities of other newly independent states in Central and Eastern Europe during the interwar period, including some political turmoil in the 1920s and some political authoritarianism in the 1930s (similar to the corporate-state systems of Austria and Hungary at the time). But for the most part, they were stable, peaceful, prosperous and decent.

The economies of the Baltic states were based upon a large number of independent farmers who produced high quality meat and dairy products for export to Western Europe. In this, the Baltic states were rather like Denmark (or, for a less exact American analogy, like Wisconsin). The worldwide Great Depression brought some brief economic distress, but the great urban and middle-class markets of Britain and Germany (the latter growing because of the Nazi rearmament program) still afforded considerable prosperity to the Baltic states. Indeed, at the end of the 1930s, the per capita income of Estonia was equal or greater to that of Finland, and Latvia’s was not far behind.

This economic prosperity in turn provided the resources for an extraordinary cultural vitality, based upon a dense and intense network of literary, singing and artistic societies that were devoted to the preservation and development of the national culture. Estonia had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and again Latvia’s was not far behind.

It seems a little odd that the years of the Great Depression could be seen as a golden age by anyone, but Baltic history is full of oddities and paradoxes. In any event, the 1930s would be remembered by the Baltic peoples for more than half a century thereafter, right down until the early 1990s, as indeed such an age, one brief shining moment (caught in sepia-tone photographs, as if preserved in the famous Baltic amber). It was an era, and they were nations, whose essential goodness and decency must someday be recovered and redeemed.

The story of the sudden descent of the Baltic states from the golden age of the 1930s into the darkest depths of the 1940s is (or should be) well known. The successive horrors of Soviet occupation, Nazi occupation and Soviet reoccupation are movingly and memorably depicted in the superb Occupation Museum in Riga and in the Estonia History Museum in Tallinn. Many European countries suffered terribly during the Second World War, but arguably the Baltic countries suffered the most. Almost 20 percent of the population of each was either killed or deported to the Gulag archipelago by the Soviet police state. The percentage was far higher among political and cultural professionals – that is, anyone who might represent the national identity. But the economic base of the national identity, the independent farmers, was also destroyed, with the mass deportation of tens of thousands of them in March 1949.

By the early 1960s, the Soviets seemed to have totally extinguished the national identities of the Estonian and Latvian peoples. They were about as extinct as the national identity of the Tibetans. But then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviets began to allow the staging of song festivals. Once again it was possible to be, if only for one brief singing moment every five years, a nation. By the 1980s, these song festivals were on a scale and with a significance even greater than a century before, during the period of national-identity formation, or a half century before, during the period of national independence. At one festival in Tallinn in 1988, 300,000 Estonians, or one-third of the Estonian people, were present. The singing nation was about to become “the singing revolution.”

In the fullness of time (and with the play of fate, as represented by the odd conjunction of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev), the Cold War brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dispossession of the Russian apparatchiks in Estonia and Latvia. After heroic but peaceful demonstrations against Soviet rule, these small nations once again established their own independent republics between 1989 and 1991.

This miraculous rebirth was the culmination of a grand narrative involving, successively, peace and prosperity, catastrophe and death, but, in the end, redemption and resurrection.

The Russian Tale

Viewed from the national prism, the reality of the Baltic states is a romantic epic. Viewed from what might be called the Russian prism, however, things look quite different. It becomes more a case of the regression to the mean – in every sense of that word. In addition to the obvious facts of geographic proximity and military disparity with respect to Russia itself, the Russian reality of the Baltic states today consists of three internal dimensions: demographic, economic and social.

Demographically, about 30 percent of Estonia’s population is ethnically Russian; in Latvia the figure is about 35 percent. The capital city and metropolis of each country – Tallinn and Riga respectively – has a substantial Russian majority. Indeed, the seven largest Latvian cities all have a Russian majority. The Russians largely live in vast and ugly working-class suburbs where it may truly be said that things fall apart. Moreover, in each country the eastern region bordering Russia has a very large Russian majority.

Russians did not comprise a large minority in the Baltic states during the first interwar independence period; at that time they formed less than 8 percent of the populations. Rather, the Russians were brought in during the Soviet period to be workers in the newly constructed Soviet-style heavy industries, and to be soldiers and sailors in the vast network of Soviet military bases along the Baltic Sea. Many Russian military officers found the Baltics to be a pleasant place to retire, and they are still living there today. The same is true of many former officers of the KGB.

Most of the Russians are not citizens of the new states. The granting of citizenship is closely tied to knowledge of the national languages, and for the most part Russians are unwilling or unable to learn these obscure and difficult tongues. They are in the Estonian and Latvian republics, but not of them.

The Russians have a political culture very different from that of the Estonians or Latvians. Like that of the Russians in Russia itself, it is authoritarian, ethnocentric and populist. The political culture of the Estonians and Latvians, on the other hand, is more like that of the Scandinavians – democratic, rationalist and legalist.

Despite being excluded from the Baltic political process, the Russians have gained some benefits from the Baltic economic success. In recent years, very few Russians have left to return to Russia. They have concluded that, things being as they are, it is better to be a second-class citizen in Estonia or Latvia than to be a first-class citizen in Russia.

The Russians once worked in heavy-industry factories that were the most advanced in the Soviet Union. This was the arduous but well-paid “black work.” Today, these vast factories are decrepit, empty and useless. Many Russians in the Baltics are now employed instead in the vigorous construction industry. While these workers are at the lower levels of the Baltic economic ladder, they are still doing better than they would be in Russia.

Russia remains the largest trading partner of Latvia and the second largest (after Finland) of Estonia. A substantial part of the economy of Riga is in fact really a sort of offshore branch of the Russian underground economy, complete with an active and conspicuous Russian mafia.

Some major social features in Estonia and Latvia have a Russian-like character: the bureaucracy is burdensome, the political parties are ephemeral, and the capitalism is raw. As for the Russians in the Baltics themselves, they have the same social attitudes as Russians in Russia: many are conspicuously sullen, surly and self-pitying. And it has to be acknowledged that they have much about which to be self-pitying. I came away from Tallinn and Riga thinking that the typical Russian male is now the most contemptible human being to be found on the face of the Earth – a mean-spirited, crude, drunken lout who degrades public places, abuses his wife and disgraces himself. What is of political significance is that many Estonians and Latvians think the same.

The American Tale

There is a third reality in Estonia and Latvia, one that has sprung up in the last decade and that is impossible to miss. It is unavoidable not only because one now expects to find it in all of the ex-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but also because one of its embodiments is the glittering high-rise office buildings that now loom over – and break up – the medieval, neoclassical or art nouveau skylines of Tallinn, Riga and even the Estonian university town of Tartu. This third reality consists of young and energetic entrepreneurs, high-tech business services and sleek retail stores.

The norms of this reality are set by American products, American practices and American pop culture, which together represent what are seen as “American standards.” For many Estonians and Latvians, the definition of what it means to be Western has become not so much West European but instead American. The dynamic parts of the Estonian and Latvian economies are mostly to be found in this Western reality; these are the high-technology, skilled-service and commercial sectors. Most of the economic energy in Estonia and Latvia is driving these countries to become more Western, less national and less Russian. (An exception is the Russian underground and offshore economy, which has a perverse energy all its own.)

This American reality is characterized by a series of now large and still growing social gaps – gaps between rich and poor, young and old, and the private and the public services. The underclass of the American reality is even more evident in the public places of Tallinn and Riga than is its upper class; its saddest representatives are the pensioners – elderly, infirm, poor and alone.

The public display, the powerful dominance, of the American reality is pervasive and pronounced. When I was riding into the suburbs of Riga on the bus from Tallinn, I glimpsed in the distance three flag poles, each flying a large red banner emblazoned with a yellow device. Is it really possible, I wondered, that the Soviet hammer-and-sickle is still flown in Riga? But, of course, it is not possible. These were the red banners of a McDonald’s restaurant, and the yellow device was the Golden Arches. The McDonald’s flag is now ubiquitous in Latvia.

Since Estonia and Latvia had come into being – not just once but twice – as singing nations, I thought it would be fitting to take back home some recordings from the famous song festivals. My search in half a dozen record stores in both Tallinn and Riga nearly proved fruitless, as I peered at more than a thousand different recordings of Estonian and Latvian versions of new age, techno rock and heavy metal. Finally, in one and only one store in each city, I found one and only one cassette (not even a CD) from the national song festival.

The respective destinations of Estonia and Latvia are actually becoming quite clear. Although the preferred destination might be someplace in the United States, the actual one is rather closer to home.

Estonia is becoming a kind of South Finland. It is full of Finnish goods, investments, business people and tourists. Finland provides Estonia with the model for what it can and should be (and what it would have been, had there never been a half century of Soviet occupation and oppression). But Finland became a prosperous economy and sophisticated society in the 1960s, an era that was characterized by social-democratic policies and by a regional (Northern European) economy. Estonia seeks to become a prosperous economy and sophisticated society in the 1990s, a very different era and one that is characterized by free-market policies and a global (American-led) economy. The result is that Estonia will become a meaner, rougher version of Finland. (It is already the place where Finns come for the weekend to do meaner, rougher things.)

Latvia, or rather Riga, is becoming a kind of East Hamburg. Both Riga and Hamburg are vast port cities whose societies are complex and multicultural. Before 1914, a large and rich German minority dominated the economy of Riga. Although Germans will never again be demographically significant there, they are likely, through their trade, investments and tourism, to become economically substantial once more.

Beyond the Finnish and German attractions, the Baltic states confront an array of political, economic and military issues whose outcomes will determine their eventual identifies. Each issue concerns the Baltics’ prospective relationships with a Western international organization, especially the European Union and NATO. But in their drive to the West the Baltic states must navigate a serious pothole. At the intersection of the three realities that we have discussed lies the political issue of the status of the Russian minority. Western governments and international organizations are pressuring the Baltics to admit the Russians to full citizenship and equal political rights. Indeed, the European Union has made progress in this direction a condition for considering the Baltics for membership. From the Western perspective, this is simply a matter of universal human rights, of freedom and equality for the individual. From the Baltics’ perspective, however, raising the Russians to full citizenship and equal rights could mean lowering themselves back into the dark depths of the Russian reality. The Baltic nations could become more Western in form, as with formal membership within Western international organizations, but only at the cost of becoming more Russian in content.

The NATO Question

At the intersection of the Russian and the Western realities stands the issue of the military position of the Baltic states, and particularly the issue of NATO enlargement.

The Baltic states themselves intensely long for membership in NATO. Among Estonians and Latvians, there is probably more consensus in favor of membership than there is among Czechs and Hungarians. They see it as the ultimate, perhaps the only, guarantee that they will never again be plunged into the depths of Russian occupation and oppression. They have learned, perhaps overlearned, the lesson that any national independence that they might have can only exist within a more general dependence upon the greatest power to the West, and in this role America (strong and supreme, but remote and benign) is the perfect performer. The NA in NATO really stands not just for North Atlantic but for nuclear America. This is one reason why the Baltic definition of what it means to be Western is so enthusiastically American.

These Baltic ideas about security may seem self-evident, given the strategic position of the Baltic states. However, with a slight shift of the security vantage point northward (i.e., from Estonia and Latvia to Finland), we can see that a different conclusion might have been possible.

Before 1939 Finland had also been commonly defined as a Baltic state, along with the other three. Under the Russian czars, the positions of the four peoples had been roughly the same (although the Finns had somewhat greater autonomy). During the turmoil of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, the experiences of the four were again similar (although the Finns were somewhat less afflicted by the invading armies of the Germans and the Soviets). During the interwar period, the experiences of the four were again similar (although the Finns were able to preserve their democratic political system during the Great Depression).

In the fall of 1939, Stalin subjected the four Baltic countries to the same kind of military demands. But there then arose a crucial difference between Finland and the southern three Baltic states. The Finns fought the Winter War of 1939-40 to resist those demands, while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all yielded to them. As a result, by the 1950s Finland was defined no longer as a Baltic state but as a Nordic one, along with Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. And by the same time, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were defined merely as the Baltic republics within the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, it was of course impossible for Finland to even consider joining NATO. Indeed, given their delicate relations with the Soviet Union, the other Nordic nations also chose to have relations with NATO that were rather less intense and full than those of, say, the Netherlands or Belgium. (Sweden was officially neutral; Norway and Denmark did not allow NATO troops to be based on their territories; and Iceland did not have any armed forces of its own.) The Northern Flank of NATO was organized very differently from and much more subtly than the Central Front.

In essence, Finland worked out a grand bargain with the Soviet Union (and also with NATO), in which it retained political, economic and cultural independence while giving up military and strategic independence. Indeed, while being in the strategic sphere of influence of the Soviet Union and having no military connections at all with the West, Finland was in the political, economic and cultural sphere of influence of the West. It retained its democratic political system throughout the Cold War, and it became first a member of the European Free Trade Association and later a member of the European Community. This was the famous – and, for some, notorious – “Finlandization.” Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it clearly seems to have been a good thing for Finland.

If Finlandization was a good thing and a prudent policy for Finland on the Northern Flank of NATO during the Cold War era, could it be that something similar would be a good and prudent policy for the Baltic states on the eastern border of NATO during the post-Cold-War era? Why couldn’t the Baltic states be in the Russian sphere of influence in regard to military and strategic matters, while being in the Western sphere of influence in regard to political, economic and cultural ones?

Whatever might be the advantage and prudence for the Baltic states of a contemporary version of Finlandization, it is a path decisively rejected by the Baltic states themselves. One reason is that they see themselves as having already chosen this path in their relations with Russia (Stalin’s Soviet Union) in 1939, with the catastrophic consequences of annexation, oppression and deportations. A second reason is that, unlike Finland, Estonia and Latvia have those large Russian minorities living within them, which makes more difficult the political consensus and consistency, and the diplomatic subtlety and sophistication, that a policy of Finlandization requires.

From the perspective of the Baltic states, then, Finlandization is not really a choice; the only choice is NATO-ization. While eagerly awaiting what Americans have told them will be “NATO’s second round of enlargement”, the Baltic states are making the most of any opportunity for military cooperation with the United States that comes their way. One example has been the annual summer military exercise known as “Baltic Challenge.” Although it includes military units from all of the NATO members bordering the Baltic Sea, including Poland, the largest participating units have come from the United States and from the three Baltic states. Another example is the “Baltic Battalion”, which is composed of soldiers drawn from the three Baltics and which has served under NATO command in the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. Almost anyone else would have seen military service in Bosnia as a danger and a burden to be avoided, but for the Baltic states it was an eagerly grasped opportunity and a prototype of good things to come. A third example has been the annual summer joint exercise held in Latvia between the Michigan National Guard and the Latvian army, complete with the ceremonial military participation of the visiting governor of Michigan (a state with a substantial Latvian-American community).

Aside from the foreign policy of Michigan, what is the policy of the United States concerning NATO enlargement and the Baltic states? A top U.S. foreign policy official with responsibility for Russia and the region has been quoted recently as saying, “We are waiting for the Russians to get bored, while we edge the Baltics toward the West millimeter by millimeter.” Is this being clever, or too-clever-by-half? Can this professional expert on Russia really believe that the Russians are so stupid that they will get bored? Or does he really think that they are so weak that they will have to act as if they were bored? Perhaps he should reflect upon the belief among German foreign policy officials that Russia has the memory of an elephant: what the Russians have had to acknowledge and accept when they have been weak, they have remembered and rejected when they have again become strong.

Of course, Americans today may easily conclude that Russia is so far down and so far gone that it will remain weak forever, if indeed it remains a unified Russia at all. But here again the Germans have a different perspective, one closer to Bismarck’s famous judgment that “Russia is never as strong as it appears, nor as weak.” Bismarck’s view is largely shared by the Baltic states, which is why they want to convert what they see as Russia’s temporary weakness into what they see as NATO’s permanent security guarantee.

Whatever the Baltic policy of the current feckless U.S. administration, is there a political base within the United States sufficient to support a second round of NATO enlargement that would include the three Baltic states (and not merely a couple of Balkan ones, particularly Slovenia and Romania)? Will it really be possible to persuade the U.S. Senate (and the U.S. Army) to assume a commitment to guarantee the military security of these small countries bordering on Russia, within 150 kilometers of Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, and containing Russian minority populations of 30-35 percent? And even if they should agree to this guarantee given current strategic conditions, what would they still agree to in the changed strategic conditions that could exist a decade or two from now?

In short, from the Baltic perspective, NATO-ization is indispensable, but from the American perspective it is improbable. The end result will likely be some kind of practical military coordination between the Baltics and NATO, but no formal membership of NATO. If So, the role of the Baltic states in the future would have some similarities to the role of Sweden in the Cold War era. But it would have even more similarities to the role of Finland today in the post-Cold War era. Finland continues to remain outside NATO, even though it cooperates with it and even though it is Western in every other sense. Perhaps the best course for the three Baltic states for the early decades of the twenty-first century will be to follow the lead of what was once their fellow Baltic state, in the early decades of the twentieth.

James Kurth is professor of political science at Swarthmore College.

COPYRIGHT 1999 The National Interest, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning