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A (Con)federation of Three Baltic States?

January 31, 2012 - Linas Jegelevicius - Bez kategorii

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Have you heard of the new (con)federation of Latlitestia? How about some facts. It is a state with a population of six million people; intertwined historically, economically, culturally and politically as tightly as perhaps few European states are. As for its location, it is sprawled along the Baltic Sea coast.

I am speaking, of course, of the (con)federation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – Latlitestia, as it is known from now on.

Don’t call me insane, just yet! If you have followed the history of the three Baltic countries closely, for at least the last 25 years, you should agree that this kind of unification wouldn't have surprised many back in the 1990s, when the break-up of the Soviet Union was ignited by the three countries’ national movements. Now you are right: to speak of unity of the three Baltic States, let alone a confederation, is simply irrelevant for one reason – there are a lot more irreconcilable differences among them than a cohesive unity of their multi-faceted interests.

BUT, if we were to ponder the pros and cons of such a (con)federation, I can honestly come up with more advantages and benefits than disadvantages. To name a few? Well, standing alone, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are too tiny to stir any ripples (forget a splash!) in the big pond. Do not be surprised if many Palermo dwellers, or most Maltese, haven’t heard of these tiny EU member states. Be ready to give a lesson in their geography and history when travelling.

That is exactly what I did last October on a cruise on the doomed Costa Concordia, which then successfully sailed along the shores of the island of Giglio. Thanks, Captain Francesco Schettino for not swinging by the island too closely, as well as for enduring those loud and mocking comments about your dandy and cocky posture on Gala night – when we sat at adjacent tables in the dining room! We checked the Costa Concordia passenger list: out of 3780 passengers, only our couple was from the Baltics. There are no surprises here – we are too small and often too impoverished to ripple the international waters in abundance. Being insufficiently known to the world deters Madonna and Lady Gaga, Barack Obama and even David Cameron from stopping by for even a day at least (Thanks, Hillary, for swinging by Lithuania twice in recent months!).

The (con)federation would mean a larger size and therefore more influence, and would definitely put us in a brighter spotlight. And maybe then even the muscle-flexing Poland, Lithuania’s assumed single bridge to the West, would stop playing its game of cat and mouse. All agree that the Baltics stood united only as long as the three had a common enemy, i.e. Soviet totalitarianism. Upon restoring their independence, the Baltic States became competitors like they had been in the 1920s and 1930s.

Since the restoration of statehood, the states have taken slightly different paths, separating a lot more often than crossing, during the course of the last 20 years. Not to delve in the intricacies of why and who is responsible for this, but the answer is simple: economic interests always take over when there is no imminent threat. Strategically (and logically!), it would make sense for the Baltics to have a single liquefied gas storage facility. But with squabbles flaring up between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania over the construction site of a proposed facility, the once “three Baltic sisters” have decided to build their own facilities. Sure, this will require a lot more resources for each of them. But who cares?

Lithuania, cherishing the long-sought nuclear power project in Visaginas, saw Poland recently pulling out of it. No wonder: Poland is a big-calibre player willing to deal more with Germany and Russia on energy issues than Lithuania. Would have the (con)federation of Latlitestia made the difference in the Poles’ decision? Most certainly. Although Estonia and Latvia have promised to stay in the Visaginas NPP project, some question marks loom about the seriousness of their intentions. Before the presidential elections, Latvia hinted several times it may leave the project.  And the sluggish Estonians would rather sneak deeply in the Nordic energy market than rely on Lithuanian nuclear.

When it comes to business, even Russia is not the bogeyman for Latvia any more. In this regard, Lithuania, in its frenetic pursuit of energy independence from Gazprom, has not overcome its Russian fears. In November last year, Latvia blocked EU negotiations with Russia and Belarus over disconnecting it from the Russian electricity power system, claiming it is “safer for Latvia” to be in the Russian power network. The mathematics is simple: Latvia estimates its electricity costs would rise if it left the Russian power grid. Lithuanian Energy minister, Arvydas Sekmokas, was dismayed by the Latvians, calling the decision “selfish”.

The only time the three countries have shown any unity recently was during summer last year with the scandal over the release of Mikhail Golovatov, a former commander of the former USSR’s Alpha group, which carried out massacres in Vilnius and Riga in 1991. The commander was detained in Vienna on a European Arrest Warrant, and then quickly released after high-ranking Russian diplomats intervened. The foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, in a joint letter to Austria and to the foreign ministers of the EU member states, condemned the release.

But political solidarity was quickly overshadowed by the row over the location of the construction of liquefied gas storage. Seemingly, only the EU-sponsored Railbaltic project intended to connect the Baltic countries, Helsinki and Warsaw, has been a rare declaration of the Baltic States’ unanimous support. But let’s admit, this is quite a rare exposure of unity in a larger series of squabbles.

In the wake of the Russian unrest, following the Duma elections on December 4th 2011, and the upcoming presidential elections in March 2012, the Russian anti-Baltic rhetoric has noticeably increased. The allegedly “worsening” situation of Russian minorities in Pribaltika has become an issue. Although, thinking seriously about the Russian accusations, the British Daily Mail even ran a scandalous story predicting that, if the eurozone and the entire EU collapse, Russia will return to the Baltic States, and will occupy Latvia in 2015, and later Estonia and Lithuania. Does this sound like the delusions of a sick-minded editor? Perhaps.

However, even with EU and NATO membership securities, the Baltic States remain uneasy. The (con)federation, Latlitestia, would, certainly, infuse more courage into them. Most importantly, it would fend off all those who may still want to gobble up the countries one by one as the Soviet Union did in 1939. But the larger chunk of the (con)federation may just be too big to swallow.

Linas Jegelevicius is a Lithuanian journalist and editor of a regional Lithuanian newspaper. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times, the only English-language weekly newspaper in the Baltics.

Baltic Spotlight is a column by Lithuanian journalist Linas Jegelevicius for New Eastern Europe. 

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