About two and a half years ago, while spending a few months in Ukraine, I left Kiev to take a trip through the Baltic states. On a cold winter day in the middle of October, I flew into Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. From there I would travel exclusively by bus from Tallinn on the Baltic Sea to Tartu in southern Estonia, then on to Riga, Latvia, and finally to Vilnius in southern Lithuania.
At the time, the Baltics were relatively quiet. Tucked away in the northeast corner of continental Europe, the Baltics are often forgotten when it comes to mainstream European politics. The mere fact that these countries are most often referred to collectively as “the Baltics” is quite telling of how little is understood about their individual history and culture.
After all, they are tiny in both size and population. But it is precisely their location — in the far periphery of Europe, immediately abutting Russia near one of its population cores, St. Petersburg — that gives the Baltics considerable geopolitical importance.
The immediate sense that one gets while traveling through the Baltic countries — especially if you have been to other former Soviet republics — is that the Baltics are by far the most economically developed states of the former Soviet Union. They are also the least Soviet. Each capital city in the Baltics has well-preserved old towns filled with medieval architecture and lined with cobblestone streets.
Tallinn and Riga, both port cities on the Baltic Sea, were once important trading posts for the Hanseatic League, while Vilnius was once an imperial capital, first under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Russian Empire didn’t incorporate the region until the 18th century, and the Baltics weren’t incorporated into the Soviet Union until the middle of WWII.
This is reflected in the contemporary architecture as well. Each of the Baltic states has small but quite modern central business districts, with gleaming glass office buildings and new, Western hotels. Scandinavian banks can be seen throughout Baltic cities — unsurprising given that Nordic countries dominate each country’s banking industry. The Baltics felt as if they were, in many aspects, miniature versions of Finland or Sweden.
Not in all ways, however. To be sure, the Baltic states are more developed than much of the rest of the former Soviet Union, but they are still below the EU average on most economic indicators. In this sense, they are more akin to Central European countries such as Poland or Slovakia than their richer neighbors to the north, and most important, there is the Russia factor.
Russia’s influence can still be felt in the Baltics in many ways. It can be seen through the architecture; for example, in the center of Riga is the Soviet-era Academy of Sciences building, which, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris (only less aesthetically appealing with its Stalinist design), seems to be visible from almost all vantage points throughout the city.
It can also be seen in the Baltics’ numerous Orthodox churches, such as the grand Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in central Tallinn, built at the end of the 19th century in a Russian revivalist style. It is less visible in the center of Vilnius — which has more of a Polish cultural and architectural influence — but it is more apparent on the city’s outskirts, where Soviet-style apartment blocs can be found in abundance.
Russia’s influence is not only seen in the Baltics — it is also heard. Walking on the streets of Riga or Tallinn, one is liable to hear a surprising number of passersby speaking Russian. After all, the ethnic Russian population in these cities is substantial — 37 percent in Tallinn and nearly 40 percent in Riga. Even ethnic Estonians and Latvians in these cities are usually able to speak Russian — everyone I personally encountered could speak the
This is particularly interesting because Russian-language education is no longer mandated as it was during the Soviet era, and English is now much more widely studied. However, the large ethnic Russian population, especially in Tallinn and Riga, and to a lesser extent in Vilnius, continues to make Russian prevalent in these areas.
There are also specialized Russian-language schools and organizations like Russian cultural centers (supported by Moscow) in these cities to keep the Russian language and culture relevant.
Persistent Key Issues
During my trip, I met with several political, media and think tank representatives throughout the region. At the time, there were three primary issues that inevitably came up in each conversation, and though this was well before the current Ukraine crisis broke out, all of the issues related to Russia in some way.
The first was the Baltics’ attempts at energy diversification. Each Baltic country is almost entirely dependent on Russia for its natural gas supplies, and each was trying to get out of Russia’s energy grip. The second was strengthening economic integration with the European Union as a means to lessen their reliance on Russia.
The European crisis back in 2008-2009 seriously affected these countries, and they were the first to apply massive spending cuts. Despite this, the Baltics displayed a commitment toward strengthening economic ties with the European Union; Estonia joined the eurozone at the beginning of 2011, and Latvia and Lithuania expressed their desire to also join the currency union.
Finally, there was the security issue. Russia had invaded Georgia only three years earlier, and all three Baltic countries were concerned by Russia’s rise as a regional power and what that meant for their security.
Strengthening ties with NATO, in addition to increasing regional military cooperation within the Nordic-Baltic Format were high on the Baltic states’ agenda. Now, nearly three years later, it is interesting to note what has and hasn’t changed in the Baltic states on all of these fronts. On energy diversification, there has been some distinct progress made.
In 2012, Lithuania launched plans to build a floating liquefied natural gas import facility. Construction is underway and set to be complete by the end of this year.
Estonia and Latvia have not been as successful in moving forward with their own plans to build liquefied natural gas terminals and have not attracted EU funds to finance such projects. However, they are hoping that Lithuania’s import facility, as well as increasing interconnectedness between natural gas pipelines in the region, can help them reduce their dependence on Russia down the line.
As far as economic integration, Latvia joined Estonia in the eurozone at the beginning of this year. Lithuania has also applied for eurozone membership, and on June 5, the European Commission announced that Vilnius was formally ready to become the currency bloc’s 19th member on Jan. 1, 2015.
Russia is still a major trade partner for each of the Baltic states, but membership in the eurozone gives the Baltics greater protection from Moscow’s Commercial influence, like it has in non-eurozone EU members such as Hungary and Romania. However, lingering issues such as high unemployment and high Emigration still make the Baltics susceptible to Russia’s economic and political reach.
On the security front, the crisis in Ukraine has only reinforced the Baltics’ concerns about greater Russian power projection. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of pro-Russian elements in eastern Ukraine have heightened fears in the Baltics that they could be next in Russia’s sights.
Indeed, pro-Russian groups in Estonia and Latvia have called some demonstrations, but these have been quite small and have not yet posed a substantial security problem, though authorities have taken preventive measures.
Of greater concern to the Baltics is the substantial Russian military buildup near their borders, not only in Russia’s western military district but also in Belarus, a Russian ally. Because of this, the Baltics have called for a greater commitment from NATO and particularly the United States, and this has in recent months spurred greater involvement from both in the region.
The United States has increased the number of troops it sends to the Baltic countries on a rotational basis, and NATO air patrols over the Baltics have tripled from four to 12 fighter jets.
The Baltics’s Tense Future
Despite this greater involvement on the part of NATO and the United States, the Baltic states are still concerned whether it is enough. While the Baltics have welcomed the heightened pace of military exercises and increased
numbers of NATO troops deployed for such exercises, they have lobbied for greater commitments.
Indeed, Estonia has called on NATO to establish a permanent military presence in the Baltics, offering its Amari air base. Latvia and Lithuania have echoed such calls. Such a substantial commitment, however, is not likely to materialize anytime soon.
The United States has placed a greater emphasis on increasing ties with its allies in Central Europe, particularly Poland and Romania, which will be crucial elements of the NATO ballistic missile defense system. Romania is also a key player in the increasingly important Black Sea area.
Washington has said it is committed to a rotational presence of its troops to the Baltics throughout this year, but beyond that, the size and longevity of its commitment is unclear, though the Baltics could benefit from spillover effects from a greater U.S. presence in Poland and Romania.
What is certain is that Russia will remain a key player in the Baltics and the surrounding region for years to come. Especially as the United States and the European Union continue to push into Russia’s former Soviet periphery
by seeking closer ties to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia (a push that the Baltics support), Russia will continue to be active in the region to attempt to stave off such moves.
This will therefore make the Russian-Western competition a key feature of the region for the foreseeable future.
In turn, this will drive the Baltics to continue to seek further integration with the West — from security, to energy, to economic matters — as a means to keep Russia at bay, while at the same time pursuing a pragmatic relationship with Moscow to avoid provoking their large neighbor to east. This will be a difficult feat and will likely end in mixed results, but the Baltics can nevertheless be expected to pursue such a strategy in line with their historical national interests.