The Role of Baltic Identity and Cooperation in Political Developments

Apr 21, 2011 Interview by Karoliina Raudsepp (Courtesy of The Baltic Times)

Andres Kasekamp is one of the best-known experts of Baltic politics and Estonian foreign policy. Although his academic roots are in Canada and the UK, Kasekamp is now Professor of Baltic Politics at the University of Tartu, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and vice-president of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies. In 2010 he published a landmark monograph “A History of the Baltic States” with Palgrave Macmillan in the UK. He agreed to meet with The Baltic Times to discuss his book, Baltic identities, cooperation and foreign policy.

Your book is about Baltic history; where did that idea come from and why is it important to tell that story?

It came very clearly from a definite need – there hadn’t been a general history of all three states which was written for an English-speaking international audience. I felt this need because in Tartu, I indeed teach Baltic history and politics. Although there are some good books in the field about specific periods, there wasn’t a book incorporating recent research and covering all three generally. The three Baltic States tend to be viewed as one from the outside so there’s really no market for a history of just Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania separately. Structuring the book was the greatest challenge because Estonian and Latvian histories run very much in parallel, whereas Lithuania, until the 19th or even early 20th century, had much more in common with Poland than with the Baltic provinces that were run by the Baltic Germans. But I must also say that a comparative approach to the histories of the three countries is a worthwhile exercise in that it provides greater insight into the histories of the three. Comparing the three histories illuminates characteristics or features of our development, which might not occur to us at first glance.

Is seeing the Baltic States as one unit a construct of the last 60 years, or did that exist before?

The construct begins with the conscious self-identification by the Baltic German nobility of the Baltic provinces of the czarist empire of the 19th century. So if we were having this conversation with you 100 years ago and we were referring to the Balts, we would certainly not be referring to the ethnic Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, but to the Baltic German upper class of Estonia, Livonia and Courland. It changes, of course, with the birth of the new states after the First World War, but even then the term is not fixed. For example, in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, four Baltic States are mentioned, as Finland is included as a Baltic State, too. It’s only really as a result of the Second World War that the three Baltic States become ingrained in the public mind, in particular when the Baltic States cooperated closely in their drive for independence. So the image of the three working together, having a common cause, is really from the days of the Singing Revolution against Soviet domination.

When it comes to culture, it is argued that Estonia has far more in common with Finland, Lithuania with Poland, and that Latvia is the only real Baltic State.

It is certainly true that Latvians have always been the strongest promoters and enthusiasts of Baltic unity and cooperation, which is of course only natural because they are the only one with two Baltic neighbors. Estonians have always looked north towards the Finns, who are their linguistic cousins. Being in Tallinn, Helsinki is much closer than Riga. The relationship between Lithuania and Poland is a bit trickier, in that they have a long shared history, but Lithuanian national identity has also been constructed largely by distancing Lithuanian culture from Polish influence. So there is much in common, but sadly sometimes conflict as well. Like over the last year, a controversy over the right of the Polish minority in Lithuania to spell their surnames in the Polish fashion.

How has this impacted the development of the three states?

In the 1990s Estonia, particularly, emphasised its Nordic identity and Lithuania its Central European connections, which were directly connected to the political challenges of the day. Estonia, in addition to the genuine reasons for considering itself part of the Nordic world, also had the political agenda of being the most successful candidate country in the race for EU membership – branding itself as Nordic, not Baltic, was a way of emphasising our difference from the other two who had not progressed with their reforms as rapidly as Estonia. At the same time, Lithuania was looking towards NATO and, for objective reasons, had a stronger case than Estonia and Latvia for fulfilling NATO’s criteria and it emphasized its ties to recent NATO members in Central Europe. The problem, however, was of course that Latvia would have then been left alone as the solitary Baltic State. This partly explains why both the EU and NATO in 2004 expanded using the all-inclusive “Big Bang” model. Conventional wisdom ten years ago, remarkable as it may seem today, was that both the EU and NATO could not digest all three Baltic States at once – it would simply be too much. Luckily, that was not the case in the end.

Should the Baltic States be cooperating more?

All the instruments of cooperation have been in place since the early 1990s, chief among them the Baltic Assembly and the Baltic Council of Ministers. What has been missing is what professor Rein Taagepera once referred to as a “lack of Baltic emotions” – we realize a practical need for cooperation, but perhaps it is not done with a tremendous level of enthusiasm. But I think the pattern of cooperation in the future will be much wider than the three Baltic States. It will be inclusive of the entire Baltic Sea region, what is currently referred to as Nordic-Baltic. Estonia has always wanted this, but the change now is that the Nordic countries themselves are coming round to realizing that within the European and global context, the Nordic-Baltic area is small, and together we carry more weight and influence. One of the important markers for the trend in cooperation was the EU’s Baltic Sea Strategy, announced in 2009, which is a conscious effort to construct a region here in the north of Europe. The key question to my mind is how much the southern Baltic Sea rim countries, Poland and Germany, will connect themselves with the emerging Baltic Sea identity.

Are economic issues likely to produce cooperation or conflict?

The Baltic States are definitely viewed as one market, but they are also competitors, producing similar things for similar markets and vying for the same foreign investments. I think economic factors are driving us towards the model of deeper integration across the entire Baltic Sea region. Growth on this side of the Baltic Sea is only possible when economies on the other side are doing well. Although it took a severe beating over the last few years, the region is now once again the fastest growing region in Europe.

How will energy politics affect Baltic cooperation?

Energy security is a real test for Baltic cooperation. On the political level the rhetoric is strong, but when it comes to implementation, then problems begin. One example is about building liquefied natural gas terminals. While everyone agrees that it is not economically viable to build more than one in the region, all the leaders and businessmen want it built in their country. Another issue is atomic energy. All three countries are interested in jointly constructing the new Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, but the process has suffered numerous setbacks and has dragged on. As a result, Estonia is now considering building its own small nuclear power plant, which a few years ago no one would have believed. So in the energy field the need for Baltic cooperation is obvious to all, but it runs up against national interests.

How will the relations between Russia and the Baltic States develop and how will that impact the minorities?

The general context of the ‘reset’ of relations between the United States and Russia, and the rapprochement between the EU and Russia, should logically have a positive impact on the relationship between Russia and the Baltic States. The fact that Poland and Russia are now cooperating more shows that it should be possible for us as well, but don’t expect mutual mistrust and suspicion between Russia and the Baltic States to disappear anytime soon. History will continue to divide us. Conventional wisdom suggests that improving the situation of the Russian minority would improve relations with Russia. Personally, I do not believe that. Let me give you an example: out of the three countries, I would say Latvia currently enjoys the warmest relations with Russia while Lithuania has the worst. However, Latvia has the most restrictive policies regarding the Russian minority while Lithuania was the only Baltic State that gave citizenship to all its residents. So there is no real correlation between the situation of the minorities and bilateral relations. I do believe the minorities should be better integrated, but the issue will always remain a convenient foreign policy tool for Russia, regardless of the reality.