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.
The Baltics in a Changing Europe
Date: 23 & 24 February 2023
Date: 23 & 24 February 2023
The International Conference on the “The Baltics in a Changing Europe” was organised by the Jean Monnet Chair on “Democracy, Diversity and European Identity in the European Union”, Centre for European Studies in the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on 23 & 24 February 2023.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania regained independence in 1991 and were focused on becoming part of the political, social, and security systems of Europe. Their foreign policies, bilateral relations, and security policies have been moulded by their unique history and geopolitical environment. Despite early difficulties, they managed to maintain consistent economic development, establish themselves as industry leaders in information technology, and raise living standards. Keeping in mind their increasing role in European and global politics, especially in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Centre for European Studies organised a two-day international conference in hybrid mode on “The Baltics in a Changing Europe”. The objective was to discuss both the progress made by these nations since gaining their independence in establishing well-functioning economies and polities as well as the difficulties they currently confront.
The International Conference witnessed presentations and commentaries from scholars and experts in Europe and India as part of planned thematic sessions that encompassed different aspects of the Baltic society. The event began with the Inaugural session chaired by Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, Dean, School of International Studies, JNU. Prof Bhaswati Sarkar, Jean Monnet Chair and Chairperson at the Centre for European Studies gave the welcome remarks and shared a brief introduction to the Conference. This was followed by Keynote Address by Amb. Bhaswati Mukherjee, Former Ambassador of India to the Netherlands. In her speech, Amb. Mukherjee discussed India’s place in world affairs and remarked about the need to improve India-Baltic ties given the current situation. She underlined the need for solid democratic ties to promote ongoing cooperation and the exchange of ideas. Present in the session were H.E. Mr. Juris Bone, Latvian Ambassador to India, H.E. Diana Mickevičienė, Lithuanian Ambassador to India, and Mr. Margus Solnson, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Estonia. Their special remarks on the conference theme set the tone for the working sessions. The session ended with a vote of thanks by the conference co-convener Dr. Akanksha, Assistant Professor, Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Panjab University who thanked the dignitaries, guests, participants and attendees for joining the event.
The conference was divided into seven working sessions spread over two days and covered a wide range of topics, including foreign and energy policies, understanding Baltic politics and society, security challenges following the Ukraine War, and the prospects for India-Baltics relations in the long term. Around 30 participants presented on a topics which covered a wide range of issues like populism, the Pandemic, the political economy of the Baltics, exclusion and integration, and evolving dynamics within India-Baltic equations followed by Q&A and lively discussion. However, an important subject of debate throughout the two-day conference was the repercussions of the war in Ukraine and its political ramifications for the Baltic states. The working sessions were presided over by experienced members of the faculty who offered constructive feedback and remarks for each of the presentations. Prof. Gulshan Sachdeva, (Jean Monnet Chair & Professor, CES, SIS, JNU), Prof. Jayati Srivastava (Professor & Chairperson, Centre for International Politics, Organisation & Disarmament (CIPOD), SIS, JNU), Dr. Sakti Prasad Srichandan (Assistant Professor, CES, SIS, JNU), Dr. Teiborlang Kharsyntiew (Assistant Professor, CES, SIS, JNU), Prof. Sanjay Pandey (Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, SIS, JNU), Prof. Pierre- Frédéric Weber (Associate Professor, University of Szczecin, Poland), and Prof. Archana Upadhyay (Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, SIS, JNU) were the chairs of the seven working sessions.
The conference concluded with the Closing Session at the end of Day 2 where Prof Bhaswati Sarkar’s shared her final remarks to the participants and other attendees of the event. She stressed on the need to look at the various regional specificities in Europe for a better understanding of the European integration process and shared that a select number of papers presented in the conference would be part of a publication on the Baltics. Acknowledging the work behind organising International Conference in hybrid mode, she expressed her deep gratitude to the presenters, attendees and her student volunteers who helped in organising the event. On behalf of the students Ms. Sanskriti Rajkhowa, Research Scholar, CES, SIS, JNU addressed her vote of thanks for the event in which she expressed her sincere gratitude to the Centre for European Studies and School of International Studies for organising the event.
Border Life: Politics and Identity in Post-Soviet Lithuania
Speaker: Dr Šarūnas Paunksnis
Date: 10 June 2022
The Jean Monnet Chair on Democracy, Diversity and European Identity in the European Union at the Centre for European Studies in the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) organised a Special Lecture by a Lithuanian scholar Dr Šarūnas Paunksnis on 10 June, 2022. The event was hosted online over Zoom on the topic “Border Life: Politics and Identity in Post-Soviet Lithuania”.
Dr Šarūnas Paunksnis is an Associate Professor in Digital Culture, Communication and Media Research Group at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at the Kaunas University of Technology. His areas of interest include new media, Indian cinema, science and technology studies, and post-colonial theory among others. Dr Paunksnis is also both a Fulbright and a Chevening alumnus who has been associated with several reputed institutions such as the Columbia University in New York and SOAS University of London, as well as with Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. He is the author of two books: Dislocating Globality: Deterritorialization, Difference and Resistance (2016) and Dark Fear, Eerie Cities: New Hindi Cinema in Neoliberal India (2019).
The lecture commenced with a welcome note from Prof Bhaswati Sarkar, Jean Monnet Chair and the Chairperson at the Centre for European Studies, who introduced the speaker. The session was chaired by Dr Krishnendra Meena, Associate Professor at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation & Disarmament (CIPOD), SIS, JNU who specialises in geopolitics. Prof Sarkar set the tone for the lecture by highlighting some of the key issues related to borders – both territorial ones and those constructed by individuals and communities to create the binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Specifically, in the context of Europe, this has led to a twofold phenomenon; while on one hand, the European Union (EU) has created permeable borders facilitating the easy flow of people, goods and services, on the other, watertight divisions created by individuals and communities based on identity have contributed to strong feelings of ‘us vs. them’ which in turn has paved the way for increasing xenophobic sentiments. In this context, Dr Paunksnis delved into the issues of identity and self-perception of Lithuanians as a part of Europe.
The singularity of Lithuanian identity stems from the fact that although the country is geographically located on the eastern fringes of Europe, it perceives itself as a Western European state. The speaker traced this aspect of Lithuanian identity to the legacy of its medieval history and the major developments that shaped it in the 20th century. Dr Paunksnis argued that national pride rooted in the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania extending from the Baltic to the Black sea and the strong lingering influence of its indigenous traditions spurned the suppression of Lithuanian national culture and statehood under the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Similarly, the country also silently protested against its occupation by the erstwhile Soviet Union not only through forms of non-cooperation but also by creating a sense of belongingness to Western Europe. Nevertheless, Lithuania’s independence in the 1990s once again re-emphasized its geographical location in the margins of Europe and created an ambiguity that the speaker critically assessed. First, despite Lithuania’s sense of belongingness to Western Europe, the Russian language continued to be strongly relevant immediately in the post-independence period. The predominance of Russian as the only foreign language coupled with the near absence of indigenous substitutes kept the people reliant on the Russian media for both news and entertainment. Secondly, the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union paved the way for migration to Western European countries where the immigrants found themselves being perceived as the ‘other’ and engaged only as unqualified labourers, factory workers or maids. This led to a loss of idealism about the West that shaped Lithuania’s identity in the 21st century as a border state. This absorbing lecture succinctly summed up Lithuania as a country that continues to exist as a liminal state in the margins of Europe with an ‘in-between culture’ touching both Western Europe and Russia but belonging to neither.
The discourse was followed by a lively Q&A session. The event was attended by more than 40 participants, mostly based out of Delhi NCR. Data collected during the event reveal that an overwhelming 85 per cent of them are research scholars who found the lecture to be very informative regarding European identity and the post-colonial narrative in Lithuania.