Fifteen years ago, the former Soviet Republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the European Union. That success is owed to both radical transformation and intense cooperation between the Baltic States, but until today remains overshadowed by the potential for geopolitical conflict in the region between Europe and Russia. How can the most recent development of the Baltics be characterised and what significance does the region have for the European Union? The Estonian-Canadian political scientist and historian Andres Kasekamp of the University of Toronto explains.
Mr. Kasekamp, when did the notion of „the Baltic States” first appear?
Before the Baltic States emerged in 1918, there were the Baltic Provinces of the Russian Empire, which however excluded Lithuania. The term was fluid in the interwar period and, apart from the newly independent states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia often included Finland. Ironically, the notion of “the Baltic States” in its current understanding crystallised during the Soviet period after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been erased from the map.
Is the notion useful and apt, when addressing the socio-economic and geopolitical challenges that the wider Baltic Sea region is currently facing?
These days it makes more sense to talk about a wider Baltic Sea region. For instance, large corporations tend to see the Nordic-Baltic area as one market. Afterall, the Baltic Sea is practically an inland sea of the European Union since all the coastal states, with the exception of Russia, are members.
The histories of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have always been closely interconnected with the interests of neighbouring powers – both positively and negatively. How does this influence Baltic perspectives on Russia and Europe, and how does it currently reflect on domestic and foreign policy?
Small states often justifiably fear their larger neighbours. The Baltic states are among the strongest proponents of sanctions against Russia following the annexation of the Crimea, even though as a result they are the countries losing most trade. For Balts, the principle of upholding international law after having experienced Soviet annexation is of paramount of importance.
Last year, all Baltic States respectively commemorated achieving independence 100 years ago: How important is that short-lived window of national self-determination today and what role does it play in political debate?
Extremely. The fact that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been independent before annexation by the USSR in 1940 is one of the main factors why they are the most successful of the post-Soviet states. The earlier period of statehood serves as an inspiration.
On 30th April 2004 at 23.00 hrs, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the European Union. 15 years on, how is accession viewed? Has EU membership strengthened the Baltic States?
EU membership has helped the Baltic States prosper and has provided them with stability and security. Most people appreciate the benefits of membership, especially those who travel abroad. Nevertheless, there are still some populists and nationalists who make the absurd comparison between the Soviet Union and the European Union, saying that the dictate of Moscow has been replaced by that of Brussels.
North Stream 2 has become a critical issue for the idea of joint European policy- and decision-making. Have the Baltic States fallen prey to a perception of being both geographically and politically peripheral?
There is disappointment in the Baltic States that the German government views North Stream 2 purely as a commercial issue when there is also a clear political agenda behind it. Though Angela Merkel has generally listened to the concerns of Central Eastern European countries, on this issue she has continued the policy of Gerhard Schröder.
How can consultation with Central Eastern European countries be strengthened in future? Can we learn from the Baltic States and their pragmatic and intensive model of “Baltic cooperation”?
The three Baltic States have learned from their history that cooperation is vital. They lost their independence when they did not cooperate and regained it when they did. These days, cooperation has expanded to include the Nordic countries who often coordinate their policies within the EU with the Baltic States.
“From the Hanseatic League to North Stream II. Cooperation and Conflict in the Baltic Sea Region” is one of the topics of this year’s Körber History Forum on 13 and 14 May 2019.
Find more information and follow the live web-broadcast of the opening keynote and panel-discussions here.