The West and the Rest: What does 2017 hold for the Baltic States?

by Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Published: Raddington Report, 15 June 2017


Vaira Vike Freiberga asks what future the Baltic states have in the face of a resurgent Russia and a NATO weakened by Donald Trump.

2017 will be a good year if NATO holds firm to its purpose and principles and the EU does the same — two “ifs” which are more doubtful than they were last year or the year before. The Alliance was born as a reaffirmation of the common security interests of the US, Canada and European democracies. It created an institutional framework and structure to ensure peace after the bloodbath that played out across Europe in the 20th century. Look upon the row upon row of white crosses among the red poppies in Flanders fields to understand the depth of this common commitment.

For the free world, both World Wars were great victories for the Allies, allowing them to preserve their multi-party political systems, their free market capitalist economies, and allowing them to pursue — more or less willingly — gradual decolonization and increasingly liberal social reforms. These victories, however, were partial and temporary. After WWI, the collapse of the Tsarist empire gave way to a Bolshevik USSR. The retributions imposed on the Weimar republic sparked the flames of Nazism in Germany and the start of WWII. As for the capitalist West, it had to live through the Great Depression.

The Allied victory in the Second World War would have been an unalloyed success for the West, except for the fact that Stalin’s Soviet Union was among the victors. The war-time alliance had been only a marriage of convenience in order to defeat Hitler, but East and West still had radically different ideologies. Not long after the war on the ground had ended, the Cold War begun. Europe was split in two by the Iron Curtain and the world fell into two opposing camps, with the “third world” hovering in-between.

Millions watched on TV as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Those watching felt they were witnessing a new world being born — one without walls, barbed wire and totalitarianism. When the USSR fell apart in 1991, a long list of captive nations recovered their independence and were free set their course howsoever they pleased — on the condition that that course led to Western-style liberal democracy.

We Latvians did not feel that the Good Lord had placed us on this earth with the sole purpose of pleasing Russia.

The three Baltic countries – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – certainly did follow this path. Although all three had signed peace and border treaties with what was briefly the Russian Federation at the end of WWI, they now secured the signature of Yeltsin, the President of the newly reborn Russian Federation, on documents in which Russia reannounced in perpetuity to any possible claims to the Baltic states’ territories.

Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania renewed the constitutions that they had adopted after their independence in 1918 and brought them up to date with new articles about human rights. They proceeded with the economically and socially painful transition from imposed “socialism” to the wild capitalism of a suddenly free market economy and from imposed one-party rule to multi-party democracies. In short order, they made known their goal of becoming members of the European Union and the even bolder goal of joining NATO. Many scoffed at their pretensions. Many others seemed petrified at the thought that their progress westward “would displease Russia”. During my eight years as President of the Latvian republic, I lost count of the times I had to explain to Western journalists and politicians alike that we Latvians did not feel that the Good Lord had placed us on this earth with the sole purpose of pleasing Russia. We felt that Russia had quite enough territory and enough natural resources of its own to be capable of achieving happiness and stability. Recovering our independence had been our first step. Next, we would have to do everything in our power to secure it, which we did by successfully joining both the EU and NATO in 2004.

Were we received by the West with open arms? Yes and no, depending on how you look at it. We took the open-door policies of the EU and NATO at their face value and labored mightily to jump all the hoops, to meet every requirement and to push through every kind of required reform, no matter how politically sensitive or how difficult to accomplish. I know, because for eight years I was there to push and prod successive governments and parliaments whenever they seemed to be dragging their feet. We were weighed, measured, evaluated, calibrated in every way possible and, yes, we made the grade. Who can forget the joy of the two celebrations we had — 30 April 2004 for joining NATO and 1 May 2004 for joining the EU.

Was Russia, our neighbor, happy with all the progress we were accomplishing? There is a vast literature on how they phrased their reactions. To put it politely — they were not overjoyed.

What had we done wrong? I personally found out in early 2000 from newly elected President Putin at a secretive private meeting on neutral soil, in the Austrian Alps.

Putin told me that it was a tragedy that people who had happily gone to sleep as citizens of the USSR, woke up one morning in a different country. I said we sympathized, having lived through the loss of our country in 1940. The difference was, that anybody who wished was now free to leave and go wherever they would feel more at home.

He then said it was a terrible hardship to require visas and passports to cross the new border between Latvia and Russia. I assured him that Latvians were immensely pleased with their new passports, for they allowed them the choice of going to London or Paris, rather than being dragged in cattle cars to Siberia or Vladivostok in the mass deportations that went on between 1940 and 1949. He mourned the fate of the poor “Russian speakers” of Latvia who now had to contend with Latvian as the official language. I reminded him that everybody who grew up in the Latvia of Soviet occupation had had to become a Russian speaker, so that, by definition, “Russian speakers” could not possibly be identified as a minority in my country. And on it went.

As for the Baltic countries becoming part of NATO, you would think that no greater risk to Russian security could possibly be imagined. As part of an OECD panel on European security, I asked my Russian colleague whether the armed forces of a country of 1.3 million inhabitants like Estonia, or even the armed forces of the three Baltic nations combined could seriously be considered to pose a threat to a great nuclear power like Russia. His only reply was that the Baltic states’ being under the NATO aegis had insulted Russian pride. It had been done without Russia’s approval. But NATO member countries had voted in favor of enlargement and Russia was not a member. Why should it have a voice in NATO decisions and strategy? What was the logic?

The “logic,” alas, is not without its supporters in the West. Russia is a great power, we are told. Well, bully for Russia. ”Russia has a right to having its say over what happens in its neighborhood”. Has it indeed? What about the tens of millions of people who live in countries unfortunate enough to have a border with Russia? Does geography deprive them of the basic human rights so clearly spelled out in the UN charter? “We need a happy Russia to help us to fight terrorism. If it needs to swallow its neighbors to keep happy, so be it”. This seems to be the line put forward by President Trump’s new administration. We have already seen that NATO is not high up on the list of the President’s priorities, when he refused to affirm his country’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Well, congratulations on having eliminated the threat of terrorism with Russia’s help already!

Is 2017 going to be a good year for the Baltics and for the West? I think it will mark a watershed in the strength and purpose of Western values and democratic principles. So far, I am holding my breath. Much is at stake and there is everything to lose if we give in to greed, selfishness, populism and opportunism. There will be crucial choices to be made during 2017. Let us hope they will be the right ones.


As President of the Republic of Latvia for eight years, Vaira Vīķe-Freibergawas instrumental in Latvia achieving membership in the European Union and NATO. She has also served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on United Nations Reform. Vaira Vike-Freiberga is currently President of Club of Madrid.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga has been a Member of the Global Leadership Foundation since 2010.

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