Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 23
29 November 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Why the "Baltic states"?

Mel Huang

For geographers, putting several countries located adjacent to each other in a specific group is part of their normal pursuit. For historians to perform a similar task would require sufficient historical background and supporting data. For politicians, grouping countries is in itself a political statement. For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, being lumped together as the "Baltic states" has been a mixed blessing. In a way, the grouping makes the three small countries sound larger than they really are. On the other hand, it also dilutes their uniqueness.

A geographical look at the "Baltic states"

Upon examining the area that encompasses Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, it is not very difficult to understand why they are called the "Baltic states." The three countries lie on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, geographically connected and smack dab between Russia and fresh water. The fact that the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea is also rich in amber has helped to lump the three countries together (and the name of this column has not done much to dispel such lumping).

However, geography is usually a victim, or rather a pawn, of history and politics. Why is it, for example, common for people to claim that Prague is a part of "Eastern Europe," when it is further west than the "Western" European city of Vienna? Why is it that geographical institutes around the world still argue over the location of the exact "centre" of Europe? Although prevailing opinion locates it due north of Vilnius, Lithuania, some geographic experts place the "centre" anywhere from Slovakia to Ukraine.

Then come the hypothetical questions. If the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad somehow became independent, would geographers automatically label it as a "Baltic state"? Judging by pure geography, it would fit, but how far would such a label apply in terms of history, politics and, frankly, reality? Another hypothetical consideration can be made if we look back at the inter-war period: what would we be able to group as the "geographical Baltic states" if Memelland, Eastern Prussia, and Danzig were somehow independent? Lithuania would lose most of its coastline, while this hypothetically independent Memelland and Eastern Prussia would be on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea.

Geography is seriously influenced by politics and history, and there is no avoiding it, whether we take hypothetical questions into consideration or not.

A historical look at the "Baltic states"

Historically, if we look at the entire span of European history since the Dark Ages, placing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into one grouping is very difficult. It is not until the time of the Second World War that we can historically label the three countries as a unit of some sort, without adding or subtracting a part.

For centuries, the territory of Latvia and Estonia were linked as conquered states, albeit at different times by different masters bearing different religious banners. But for a long period of time, the territories of these two countries were divided into Estonia (Estland in German), Livonia (Livland) and Couronia (Kurland). It was not until the early part of this century that Estonians and Latvians managed to place their own lands under unitary administrative control. Between the beginning of the 13th century and the start of the 20th, these lands were controlled by Germanic noble families, speaking a Low German dialect prevalent during the days of the Hanseatic League. During this period, cities in both Estonia and Latvia were Hanseatic centres, and at one point, Riga was the largest city in the Swedish Kingdom.

On the other hand, Lithuania was one of the most powerful states in Europe at the time. Despite fighting aggression from Muscovy, the Mongol Hordes and "crusading" Teutonic Knights, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania managed to become the largest political entity of the day, stretching from the Baltic (White) Sea to the Black Sea. The history of Lithuania has always been linked to Central Europe, especially to Poland: early on via the dynastic Union of Kreva (Krewo) and later through the Rzeczpospolita created by the Union of Lublin. After all, Lithuania almost set the continent alight when it became involved in the incident surrounding Czech reformer Jan Hus, who is recalled so fondly and so often in Czech history.

Even after the Three Partitions of Poland-Lithuania by the powers of the region, Lithuanian lands remained separate from those of Estonia and Latvia, despite being absorbed into the Russian Empire. The lands of Lithuanians were broken up into different groupings, and Lithuanians' links were always with Poland or Prussia. St Petersburg even took great care not to industrialise Lithuanian territory too much, as Napoleon's invasion had taught the Tsars a lesson.

In the aftermath of the First World War, with the (re-)establishment of several new countries in north-eastern Europe - Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the three countries were still not very frequently grouped together. Sometimes the term "Baltic states" also referred to Finland, which gained its independence from Russia at around the same time. Political alliances and groupings often covered all the countries mentioned, or more often without Lithuania due to its dispute with Poland over Vilnius/Wilno.

During the inter-war years, it did not make much sense to call the three countries the "Baltic states," for the problems faced by each were different. Even when the dirty hands of Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop drew up the secret protocol to carve up the region, Lithuania was originally left on the side of the Germans alongside Poland, while Estonia, Finland and Latvia fell to Moscow.

In reality, it was only after the Soviet Army regained control in the three countries in 1944 - while Finland concluded its own peace with the USSR after having resisted it in the Winter War - that the three countries could be labelled historically as the "Baltic states" with utmost precision. The simple fact was that they were the only three members of the League of Nations to lose their independence following the Second World War. Alongside Soviet atrocities and the murder and deportations of large numbers of their populations - mostly women, children and the elderly - the three countries became linked through this horrific experience and in their determination to regain their lost independence.

A political look at the "Baltic states"

Most politicians around the world look at Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the "Baltic states" for little reason other than these recent historical considerations. For many countries, it also seems easier to deal with the three as a unit, as they face similar problems both in domestic and foreign affairs. The three all want to be members of NATO and the European Union, to re-establish their half-century of broken links to the West and to shake off the remnants of Soviet rule.

However, the opinions of many within the three countries could not be more different. There is a feeling that the linking of the three as the "Baltic states" is as artificial as the 50-year horror imposed on them actively by Moscow (and with quiet acquiescence by Washington, London, Paris, Brussels and other powers). Politically, the three countries have embarked upon different roads of development. Estonia, under the leadership of young reformers who were more familiar with Hayek than Marx or even Shatalin, pursued a set of "shock therapy" reforms that challenged those of Balcerowicz or Klaus. Lithuania went through years of stagnation with the re-election of the reformed Communist Party (now the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party) and pursued more cautious, slower reforms.

Their different paths are apparent even in foreign policy. It became clear a few years ago that Estonia was doing much better economically and hence its lobbying efforts in Brussels focused on EU (rather than NATO) membership. Lithuania, realising its position, pursued NATO with gusto, knowing the state of its military would put it ahead of the other two Baltic countries. Latvia, sadly, was experiencing an ongoing identity crisis regarding which direction to follow, with obstruction from the long arm of Moscow frequently making that decision more difficult.

The future of the "Baltic states"

On the cusp of the next century, politicians, still thinking in historic terms, are starting to realise the differences of the three countries. Though often still lumped together, as they have been since the Second World War, the decision by the European Commission several years ago to start membership talks with Estonia only was the watershed event. Since then, Latvia has pushed ahead and was rewarded for certain domestic changes with early membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Draft US Congressional resolutions have pegged Lithuania as the frontrunner for NATO membership, not lumping the three countries into one unit as was habitually done in the past. Estonia has savoured its position as a frontrunner for EU membership - not only among Baltic countries but even within the group of frontrunning candidates.

However, the historical links will remain for a long time. As the last ten years have shown, during a time of crisis or stress, the three countries bind together - both from their own points of view and those of foreign powers. And until the day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania face no obvious or perceived threat - which sadly lies far in the future - there will be cause to link the three countries. Relevance, after all, is brought on by necessity.

Mel Huang, 24 November 1999

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles.



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