What Obama means to the Baltics

The Baltic Times
Monika Hanley
November 12, 2008

RIGA – The world was forever changed Nov. 4, as news of the election of the U.S.’s first African-American president resounded across the globe.
Kenya, the home country of Obama’s father, was rejoicing and singing as the news reached them. In the U.S., an unprecedented reaction to the election results was witnessed from Seattle to Washington D.C. – roads were closed down and blocked off as people took to the streets, dancing and singing, and wrapped in American flags, most celebrating until the early hours of the morning.

Though the Republican U.S. ambassador to Latvia, Charles Larson, looked visibly disappointed, he agreed with members of the government and locals on one thing. Obama means change.
“This is a historic and exciting day,” he said.
There are worries that he won’t be able to live up to the wild expectations that some people have, but none doubt that changes are coming.


“We’ll see what happens,” said local Latvian teacher Juris Klavins, who is hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of excited Obama fanatics. This seems to be the norm across the Baltics, a region that historically never hurries to accept new leadership too soon.
In June-August 2008, a Gallop poll was conducted asking Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians two questions: “who would you personally rather see elected president of the United States?” and “do you think who is elected president of the United States makes a big difference to your country or not?”

The first question received indifferent responses for all three countries. Of the 39 percent surveyed respondents in Estonia who chose to name a preferred candidate, 22 percent chose Obama. In Latvia 23 of 38 percent said that they also would rather see Obama elected over Republican John McCain. Lithuania was tied at 13 percent.

The second question drew more responses. In Estonia, 61 percent said it does not matter who wins, while the plurality – 39 percent – of Lithuanians said it did matter. Latvia was about even, with 34 percent saying to does matter and 39 percent saying it does not matter who the next U.S. president is.
The Baltics really do have a right to be indifferent – they knew that no matter who was elected, the foreign policy towards them wouldn’t change. Early on in the election campaigning process, the Baltics knew that there were insiders in both McCain and Obama campaigns.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden has a strong connection to the Baltics and McCain himself has links to Estonia. Both campaigns had Baltic insiders, something that assured the region that no matter what the outcome, the Baltics will be secure.
Two of the three presidential debates mentioned supporting the Baltics directly as well, each time voiced by a different candidate. McCain took a stronger stance against Russian aggression, saying more protection was needed to protect and support the “fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe, you know, the Estonians, the Lithuanians and the Latvians.”

Obama, in the second debate on Oct. 7, said “we’ve got to provide moral support to the Poles and Estonia and Latvia and all of the nations that were former Soviet satellites. But we’ve also got to provide them with financial and concrete assistance to help rebuild their economies.”
The Baltics have high hopes for President Obama. As a senator this year, Obama remained highly active in his support of the Baltics and even co-signed on a Senate resolution in September outlining the illegality of the Soviet occupation of Latvia.

“Barack Obama is a friend to Latvia as he has earlier voiced his support to Latvia. One of the proofs for it is his participation in the initiative for the U.S. Senate resolution to Latvia’s 90th anniversary, underscoring the illegal occupation of Latvia,” said President Zatlers.
Naturally all three Baltic leaders sent their congratulations to newly elected Obama, who is set to take office Jan. 20, 2009.

Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins is also ready for the changes promised by Obama, but doesn’t see too much change in terms of international relations.
“I am sure that relations with the U.S. will be developed in the same atmosphere also with the new U.S. president. We are ready to continue close cooperation both bilaterally and within NATO and EU,” said Riekstins.
“Undoubtedly, there will be changes, but what is important for Latvia is that Obama has repeatedly voiced support to Europe’s new democracies, including Latvia. I am looking forward with optimism,” said the minister.
Militarily speaking, Obama has already voiced his plan that the U.S. is ready to withdraw its troops from Iraq in 16 months and send additional troops to Afghanistan. The mission to Afghanistan is already underway and many Lithuanian troops, particularly in the Ghor region, are already in place.

Changes in defensive and offensive tactics will not have a huge impact on the security of the Baltics. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, on a recent visit to Estonia before the elections, assured citizens that regardless of the outcome the region will not be forgotten.
“I know the foreign policy advisors in both campaigns. These are serious people, and your country can feel comfortable that however it comes out, they are both people who know Estonia, care about Estonia and care about principles that we have followed over the past 18 years with respect to Estonia and your Baltic state neighbors,” Fried said.

Although U.S. relations with Russia have been deeply troubled by the Russian-Georgian war, it is still necessary to work with Moscow “but not while sacrificing our principles or our friends,” Fried said.
“If we did business with the Soviet Union when it was illegally occupying three countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and had troops stationed there and was dominating one third of Europe, how can we then say, that now when Russia is behaving badly but perhaps less badly than the Soviet Union, we’re not going to do any business at all?” the secretary stated.

“I don’t think Obama will cause a [wave of] change in U.S. foreign policy, it’s rather a question of a change in style and tonality,” Andres Kasekamp the director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute said.
In his words, current president George W. Bush managed to drag down the reputation of the United States in the whole world. He hopes that Obama, meanwhile, will be able to improve the U.S.’s standing and image in the eyes of the world.

Both smooth cooperation and mutual trust are needed for transatlantic relations to function properly. In Kasekamp’s opinion, Obama, unlike the unpopular Bush, will make an impression on Europeans and will help improve and strengthen relations.
“Time will tell whether he is up to that challenge, because the expectations are unrealistically high,” he said.