25 Years On: The Baltics
A map of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union from the early 1940s to the early 1990s and resisted Russo-Soviet control to a greater extent than most of the other union republics. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, they played a major role in leading the movement of national independence from the Soviet Union, and they were the first Soviet republics to be recognized by the international community as independent.
Less than fifteen years later, all three republics received full EU and NATO membership, having made considerable progress on implementing democratic and capitalist reforms. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were all especially hard-hit in the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, but have since recovered exceptionally well, receiving the nickname of the ‘Baltic Tigers’ for their economic resilience and success.
A large part of the Baltics’ economic development has been attributed to their high level of specialization in manufacturing and technology, originally imposed by centrally-planned Soviet economic policies. For example, to this day, computer coding is a required subject for all schoolchildren in Estonia. The results speak for themselves: the original software for Skype was written by Estonian programmers, and the country has embarked on a massive marketing campaign, labeling itself as the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe’ and a hub for startups and entrepreneurs. Although some social problems from the Soviet era remain—most notably in the form of state discrimination against ethnic Russian ‘non-citizens’ in Estonia and Latvia—the region remains the poster child for successful post-socialist development.
Even though the Baltics are rather small by both territory and population, they punch far above their weight in international affairs, primarily due to their status as NATO member states bordering Russia. This fact still causes a great deal of unease and tension in the region, especially given the nearly fifty-year Soviet occupation. Just two months ago, Russia and its close ally Belarus conducted massive war games called Zapad-2017 near their borders with the Baltics that involved around 60,000-70,000 troops, raising concerns among Western analysts and politicians.
A Brief History
Given their strategic location on the Baltic Sea, modern-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are influenced heavily by neighboring peoples and cultures. Estonians are a Finno-Ugric people, with the Estonian language being very close to Finnish, whereas Latvians and Lithuanians are Baltic peoples and speak related Baltic languages. Before the Russian Empire began expanding into the region in the eighteenth century, Estonia and Latvia were under Swedish and German cultural influence, whereas Lithuania was under Polish cultural influence. Additionally, Jews played a major economic role in Latvia and Lithuania.
After several centuries under Russian rule, the Baltic states enjoyed a brief period of independence in the interwar period.
However, this period of self-rule ended in the late 1930s, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. During World War II, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were all brutally occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviets on separate occasions. After the end of the war, the countries were forcibly incorporated into the USSR, where they remained for nearly fifty years. During the Soviet period, a massive influx of ethnic Russians moved into Estonia and Latvia; according to the last Soviet census in 1989, ethnic Russians composed 30.3% of the population of Estonia and 34.0% of the population of Latvia.
In 1987, five years before the official dissolution of the USSR, protests for independence in the Baltics began gaining force. These protests have been termed the ‘Singing Revolution’ by historians for the prominent use of nationalist, religious, and/or anti-Soviet music during mass rallies. On August 23, 1989, around two million people formed the ‘Baltic Way’, one unbroken human chain spanning more than 400 miles across all three republics, in an act of solidarity with each other and against the Soviet government. The protest made headlines the world over, and the very next year, in 1990, all three republics declared independence from the USSR. In December 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
After difficult economic transitions in the 1990s, the Baltic republics joined both the EU and NATO in 2004. In 2007, all three joined the Schengen Area, allowing for passport-free movement by Baltic citizens throughout the EU. Estonia adopted the euro currency in 2011, Latvia in 2014, and Lithuania in 2015. Today, all three are largely considered consolidated democracies with functioning free markets, and they enjoy exceptionally close relations with the US and their fellow EU and NATO members. In 2014, former US President Barack Obama even went so far as to declare that “the defense of Tallinn [the capital of Estonia] and Riga [the capital of Latvia] and Vilnius [the capital of Lithuania] is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.”
Despite their incredible progress on democratization and marketization, there remain several areas where the Baltics could make improvements. Most notably, ethnic Russians commonly encounter both state and social discrimination in the region, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, which have significant ethnic Russian minorities. In Estonia and Latvia, due to restrictive citizenship requirements put in place after socialism, more than ten percent of their populations—mostly ethnic Russians—failed to gain citizenship and so are officially classified as ‘non-citizens.’ They are barred from voting in national elections, holding elected office, or working in the public sector. Although the Russian government has pressured Estonia and Latvia to change this system, as of yet, no proposals for reform have been made.
Where are the Baltics Heading?
Given its critical location as bordering Russia, the Baltic region is viewed by many as a bellwether for Western political and public opinion on Russia. War games are often held in the Baltics by both NATO and Russian forces, and there are fears on either side that the region could become a focal point in a potential military confrontation between the US and Russia. These fears have only become stronger after Russia’s military meddling in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria in recent years. Closely watch relations between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, on one side, and Russia, on the other, as they are far more important geopolitically than they may seem at first.