Three good neighbours, albeit slightly hung over

At a stroke, Finland got three good neighbours 10 years ago. For the second time in the 20th century, Russia was so weak that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were able to break free. The first occasion was in 1918.

Good, harmless neighbours all three—even if they do give us a bit of a headache with their calls for NATO membership.

The mantra in the Baltic Rim is simple: "Get us all into NATO this minute."

During the Soviet era people got used to repeating different kinds of slogans and hoped that things would all work out for the best. Now it is the turn of others.

The European Union does not enjoy such unreserved support. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all among the most EU-critical of the current crop of applicants. Populaces disgruntled with their governments like to tease their elected leaders by saying "no" to Brussels in opinion polls.

The Latvian nightmare is that Estonia will get into the EU in the first round and that Lithuania will join NATO. Would that leave the Latvians in a grey no-man’s land?

It is hardly likely that the West will abandon any one of these three.

The protective arm of Uncle Sam has come down over the Baltics; the region already seems to belong to the United States’ sphere of influence. One also gets this impression from the pressure that Washington exerted to get Estonia to privatise its power stations and Lithuania to open up its oil sector to American companies.

The paw of the Russian bear has not shifted an inch, either. In the view of many Russians, the Baltic Rim is still their backyard. If Russia closes the oil valves, the region’s economy will take a big hit.

We live in interesting times.

You have to admire the road the Baltic republics have taken. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania carried through a unique revolution that was characterised by songs and by hands held together in a human chain rather than by automatic weapons and clenched fists.

The break-up of the Soviet Union began with the Baltics.

Finns find it pretty hard to step up and advise or criticise the Baltic trio. After all is said and done, these peoples managed to come through three successive occupations that would sap anyone’s strength and resolve—the Soviets, the Nazis, and then once again the Soviets in the post-war period.

They kept their cool and they liberated themselves peacefully. They are stable and progressive countries.

And another thing is worth remembering—if Finland had relatively as many Russians in its population as Latvia has, then there would be 2.2 million of them living here.

The three countries have earned and enjoyed one hell of a celebration in becoming independent once more. But now the hangover has come along.

According to one survey, only 33 percent of Latvians believe that their country has developed along the right lines since 1991.

The Balts have had to face numerous disappointments. The standard of living did not automatically bob upwards like a fishing float—in fact it went down; the West did not ride in and sweep the countries into its open arms; the Russian minorities didn’t move out en masse…

The researchers have come up with some alarming figures. In all three countries, the public’s approval ratings for political parties, parliament, the government, the judicial system, the police, the army, the customs authorities and the inland revenue services are perilously low.

And no wonder: many "humble servants of the people" get drunk with power and treat a career in politics or public service as a ticket to personal enhancement and wealth.

Increasingly the press is coming under the public hammer, too. Again it is hardly any surprise, considering that many journalists are prepared to sell themselves and their morals to the highest bidder.

An outsider looking in is forced to question how a democratic society can function where the lack of faith in state institutions is so deeply rooted.

If one goes back to Finland in 1927, a decade on from Independence and the Civil War, the disappointment and the crisis of confidence was still not as deep as this, in spite of all the traumas of those early years.

The Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus declared not long ago that enterprises spent an excessive amount of their time wrestling with government bureaucrats and that they used one-third of their profits on bribes and backhanders.

The recently dismissed prime minister said that the Lithuanian economy had been brought to its knees in a decade: there will be more bankruptcies to come, the pile of unpaid wages will grow, unemployment is on the increase, and state support grants have been tossed into a bottomless well.

And yet even against this background it is easy to believe in a positive development in the Baltic countries. Independence has meant an intellectual liberation, freeing energy and creativity. These countries have a cultural kick, they have potential and they have a creditable level of civilisation, for all that many of the nouveau riche are boorish and brash.

The Baltic Rim countries enjoy access to an educated and hard-working labour force. They have an optimism, a belief in the future and a healthy patriotism. Traditions are held in high esteem, the family (nuclear and extended) is a tight unit, and human relations are regarded as important.

It may be of course that I move in the wrong circles, but I do not know of any citizens who are hankering to up anchor and move abroad as emigrants. One might naturally ask whether that is patriotism in action or merely a shortage of daring and initiative.

One cannot overstate the differences between the three peoples whom we tend to lump under the one Balt heading. They actually know relatively little about one another, and they are rivals rather than regional partners.

Governments in Latvia and Lithuania are fleeting affairs, and in both these countries it looks at present as if the people are prepared to experiment with a cautious leftist alternative.

Estonia’s politics are equally factious, but the governments are built to last rather better. It is hard to imagine that any groundswell of left-wing politics could take hold for at least a generation to come.

In all three countries the population is dwindling, particularly in Estonia and Latvia. It will probably be necessary in the not-too-distant future for them to take in immigrants, however impossible or repugnant the idea might seem right now.

In the final analysis, these are also poor countries when compared with the fifteen members of the EU.

A little bit of history: in the mid-17th century the rich and proud Kurland (Kurzeme in Latvian) occupied around 26,000 square kilometres of what is now western Latvia, on the Gulf of Rīga.

Not content with this, the duke who governed the place acquired a couple of colonies—Gambia in West Africa and Tobago in the West Indies. Now Latvia finds itself one place below Trinidad and Tobago in the latest United Nations Human Development Index.

I attended a funeral this summer in a small, idyllic Latvian town. During the ceremony, two guests who had been careless were embarrassed by their mobile phones ringing.

In some sense, then, I suppose the Baltic countries are catching up with the Finns, even though economists have estimated that it will be fully 30 years before they reach Finland’s present level of development.

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Helsingin Sanomat and is republished here with the permission of the newspaper and the author.)

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