The Baltic States
The Baltic states are a congregation of three countries- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, situated in the north-eastern region of Europe and on the eastern coasts of the Baltic sea. This region is very important for western Europe due to its geopolitical position. These nations are on the fore lines of the clashes between Russia and the West for strategic purposes in Europe’s borderlands. The Baltic states are approximately enclosed by Russia and its close neighbour Belarus. Only Lithuania shares a small boundary (around 104 km) with Poland that connected them to Western Europe. Since the invasion in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) by Russia, security has become the supreme priority for the Baltic states.
There are 6 million people who live in these countries. The capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia respectively Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn are the largest cities in the region. Estonians are descendants of the Finnic people and speak the Estonian language while Lithuanians and Latvians, culturally and linguistically being closer to each other, are Baltic and Indo-European people and they speak the Lithuanian and Latvian languages respectively. Agriculture is still important in the Baltic economy besides other sectors.
These countries have been dominated by foreign powers throughout much of their histories. Russia (former USSR) ruled these states for long years, a dominance which was much resented. Thus the three Baltics states under Gorbachev’s opening up of the political system were quick to demand independence from the USSR and their success in September 1991 heralded the disintegration of the Soviet Union by December 1991. As independent entities they immediately distanced themselves from the former USSR i.e., Russia and instead aligned themselves to western Europe. They chose the parliamentary form of democracy and market economy like western European countries. Estonia and Lithuania joined the Council of Europe in 1993 and Latvia in 1995 and after fulfilling the mandatory Copenhagen criteria, they became members of the European Union in 2004. With an eye on security they joined NATO the same year. Given their geographical location, membership in the EU and NATO enhanced their significance in the region vis-à-vis relations between Russia and Western Europe. Currently, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the only former USSR associated nations who have joined either organization.
The Baltic states are not only prized for western Europe in terms of geopolitics but they can also take some important lessons from the former. Such an example is the energy sector – since a long period of time, Europe has been discussing how to broaden the energy supplies in order to meet the continent’s energy requirements. Across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia is a major and, in a few places, the sole provider of natural gas. This amount of reliance gives Russia an upper hand to use it as a political tool. Hence, the Baltic countries (especially Lithuania) paid altogether more for natural gas than Germany, for instance. But now Lithuania has diversified its energy suppliers’ group. The newly built terminal of Klaipėda to receive natural gas shipments on the coast of the Baltic sea has been in operation. Today Lithuania can import gas from America and the UAE also.
Estonia is further ahead in digital technology. The birthplace of Skype, Estonia has been known for its technological dexterity and they are proud of it. This Baltic nation has impressed the world by providing various e-services to its people. From online voting to digital IDs, they have lifted up to the next level in the digital arena in comparison with the other nations of the world.
Since regaining independence in 1991, the Baltic states have achieved substantial economic growth and have closed the income gap with developed economies. But the global financial crisis of 2008 slowed down this curve. However, these countries tackled the crisis well, especially Latvia and joined the common European currency ‘Euro’. The World Bank has classified these countries as high-income economies and they have also upheld a high Human Development Index. In 2020, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia ranked 29th, 34th and 37th respectively out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index published by the UNDP. Support for the EU is high in the Baltics, in Latvia and Lithuania, Eurosceptic parties and movements are at the margins. In Estonia, however, an anti-European populist party, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), has achieved popularity to the extent that in the last parliamentary elections of 2019, EKRE gained victory over established parties, like the left-leaning Social Democrats and the conservative Pro Patria. It joined the governing coalition and now asserts itself in setting up the agenda of the country’s politics. The party also won 1 of the 7 seats in the European Union parliamentary elections the same year of the country’s 7 seats on the slogan “We protect Estonia’s independence in Europe”. Estonians as some argue are tired of being the ‘poster child’ of the EU and feel left out in political debates. Given the pulls and pressures that EU integration has been subject to of late, developments in the Baltics will be interesting to study.