Eastern Europe: Fall-out amongst Baltic neighbours
17 April 2012
Historically linked by a common destiny, and often mistaken for one another, the national interests of the three small former Soviet states can, on occasion, come into conflict. Today the influence of Scandinavia has proved to be a force that is bringing them together.
Some 25 years ago, the three Baltic States were united by a realisation of their shared destiny and the desire to break free from Soviet domination. The emotional ties that bound them were strong enough to sustain a sense of common purpose which persisted for a decade, notwithstanding the different national attributes that manifested themselves as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia progressed towards independence.
Emerging alongside Estonian pragmatism and Lithuanian heroic romanticism, Latvian “trouble” proved to be the greatest danger, both in political and geopolitical terms, for nascent Baltic unity.
During the struggle for independence, both Rahvarinne (the Popular Front of Estonia) and Sąjūdis (the Reform Movement of Lithuania) affirmed that the bridge of freedom between Tallinn [the capital of Estonia] and Vilnius [the capital of Lithuania] could only be sustained by a solid pillar of support in Riga [the capital of Latvia]. This poetic metaphor, which was an apt reflection of the political climate of the time, highlighted an essential point: Latvia, which had suffered enormously during the Soviet era, had the largest population of foreign nationals, and as such constituted the weakest link in the Baltic chain.
The Russian “problem”
The question of the Russian minority was linked to another troublesome reality. To quote a diplomat who spent many long years in Latvia: “The most important branch of the Latvian economy, the country’s ports, is controlled by Russian capital. When independence was restored, the Latvians drove the Russians out of politics and took over executive power, because they believed that they could manage the country more reliably. At the time, no one remarked that in a democratic state, capital is the force that sets the tone for politics. And this was an oversight, because in Latvia, the country’s capital remained in Russian hands.”
As the “no” vote in the recent referendum on the adoption of Russian as the country’s second language has shown, the Russian “problem” in Latvia has not disappeared, but has in fact grown in scale. Latvian may be the sole official language, but the country’s 250,000 Russian speakers represent a political force that cannot be ignored, and one which, because it has yet to be integrated into Latvian society, continues to look on Moscow as the centre of its identity. And it is this force that hangs like a sword of Damocles not just over Riga, but over all of the Baltic States.
The impact of this situation on regional politics particularly can be seen in the manner in which it has affected the drive to establish common energy projects. In Latvia, where the locals themselves acknowledge the real power exerted by an number of oligarchs with links to Russia, politicians have publicly expressed doubts about the construction of the Visaginas nuclear power station [a joint project involving the three Baltic States, which is to be located in Lithuania].
It now appears that Riga is intent on formulating an ultimatum which says in substance: “If the regional gas terminal is not located on our territory, we will not participate in the Visaginas nuclear project”. This is an issue, because if the natural gas terminal is in Riga, Gazprom will not have to bother with separate entities for transmission network operations and supply activities. [This separation, which is required by European regulations has not been endorsed by Latvia, as part of a deal that entitles the country to special discounts from Gazprom].
Notwithstanding these disagreements, the implementation of energy projects continues to offer a concrete way to bring the Baltic states together. The Common Baltic Electricity Market has now been in operation for two years, and high tension links, which are currently under construction, will soon connect the three states to their Scandinavian neighbours.
At the same time, the money invested by Scandinavia is an even more potent unifying force. Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian banks have now lent 150 billion litas [43.44 billion euros] to the Baltic States. And in all three countries, it is possible to do business with the same banks and to buy petrol from the same Scandinavian owned network of service stations.
The Scandinavian countries are also outspoken in their encouragement of military cooperation between Baltic countries, to the point where they have now taken over from the Americans, who, in the past, established the Baltic-American Partnership Program: an organisation that aimed, alongside NATO and the European Union, to promote greater unity between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.