The three small states on the shores of the Baltic Sea are not geopolitical heavyweights in the global arena but working together they manage to achieve their strategic goals. Though the Baltic three seem to be destined to remain close, some rifts and open dissatisfactions have appeared and might once more damage the currently warm relations, says Dr Dovilė Budrytė, a professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College (U.S.).
Professor Budrytė, your research focuses on historical traumas and narratives. How has the experience of Soviet occupation, 50 years of communism, and the fall of the Soviet empire affected and influenced the Baltic states’ relations and foreign policy today?
Emerging literature on the topic of international relations gives insights into the way memory influences politics and foreign policy. It suggests that historical experiences affect how states, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and others construct their key narratives, how they present their historical experiences to the rest of the world and to each other, and how those historical experiences help them to communicate with other states.
If we apply these insights to the Baltic states, we can see that their narratives are similar. Soviet occupation and the experiences of communist crimes are perceived as a major trauma, and that trauma has a major influence on different narratives. These similarities help to achieve a strategic vision which is somewhat similar. In that sense it helps the cooperation of the Baltic states.
Looking into specifics, we can see how it affects relations with other states. For example, when the Baltic states reacted to the crisis in Belarus, there was some cooperation, they jointly blacklisted Belarussian officials and condemned the crimes of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. There was a similar outlook. If we compare this outlook with that of the Nordic states, they had a somewhat more restrained response, at least initially. Similar insights could be made about attitudes towards Ukraine.
Because of these historical experiences we see a gravitation towards transatlantic cooperation, cooperation with the U.S., which is seen as a force able to deter the influence of Russia. Russia is often perceived as a threat, even though we cannot ignore past attempts to search for alternatively pragmatic relations. So, this does not automatically mean cooperation all the time.
Lastly, the Baltic states have engaged in similar memory and mnemonic politics on the international level and argued for the recognition of Soviet crimes in various international organisations. As scholars, such as Maria Mälksoo, outlined, they worked together at the enlargement of European memory to include the experiences of Soviet occupation and the crimes of communism.
Of course, there are some differences as well. For example, Lithuania has been much more pronounced than Latvia or Estonia, in using the term genocide. Now in Latvia, even the term occupation is being re-thought and challenged. That might relate to the population, and the influence of the former deportees and political prisoners in Lithuania, who played very important roles during “Sąjudis”, when Lithuania did embrace harsher language to refer to the trauma of the Soviet past.
Are the three Baltic states always destined to cooperate because of their geography, population, and cultural similarities? We have seen some disagreements of certain questions, but might they grow into larger rifts?
I would say that we are always going to see Baltic cooperation regarding major security issues. Also, like in the past, they are going to have a joint voice on the international arena, especially when it comes to issues such as trauma, memory, transatlantic relations, and the need for international cooperation.
However, when it comes to what political scientists have called “soft” security issues, then we are going to see some differences, national interests etc., as is the case with energy and transportation questions.
When it comes to differing stances in international politics, we can point perhaps to 2005, when Latvia took a softer stance regarding Russia and the president of Latvia decided to go to Russia for the commemoration of World War II.
But the major orientation in international relations is similar and I don’t think that the trajectories will separate in the future. We should expect differences regarding orientation towards Russia when some states might say “let’s look for more ‘pragmatic’ relations”, but deep inside you can’t take away the major historical narratives, that were constructed when the states were being built. That is why I believe there is a lot of potential for Baltic cooperation.
Currently there is a very heated debate in Lithuania about the possible ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which Estonia ratified some time ago. Are the Baltic states able to cooperate on domestic policy issues and take the leading role in promoting certain norms for their neighbours? And could Lithuania, for example, share with its neighbours its experience concerning the integration of ethnic minorities?
Regarding the Istanbul Convention in Lithuania, I think some political mistakes have been made. As Dalia Leinartė pointed out, it’s like “Brexit”, because when it happened, many people in Great Britain had no idea what it meant, but it was highly politicised. People have different interpretations and fears for terms such as gender, and clinging to this whole idea of traditional family there is a feeling that it will somehow become endangered. I think it is the lack of political will from the politicians to ratify the convention at fault, but also a lot of misinterpretation and polarisation in society. This is a domestic political issue that Lithuania must solve itself, Latvia too.
When it comes to minorities, Estonia and Latvia obviously have different issues from Lithuania. Here some cooperation might be possible because in all of these we are seeing the influence of Russia and Russian media, attempting to expand its influence to affect the thinking of minorities. All three states are faced with the issues of ethnic integration and misinformation coming from Russia. They must think about ways to better integrate their Russian speakers, or in the case of Lithuania, Polish speakers, into their body politic.
Therefore, the Baltic states could cooperate more to better address the misinformation coming from Russia. We can already see the negative results of such influence—for example in Lithuania’s Polish speaking communities there is a widespread resistance to vaccination, which has to do with the influence of Russian media. The same goes for issues such as gender roles and international relations.
Currently more women than ever before are taking top leadership positions in the Baltic states as well as in the Nordic countries.
In the case of Lithuania and this hot debate about the Istanbul Convention, terms like gender and gender equality, we are also seeing the growing influence of women in the highest echelons of power.
Despite some conservative attitudes, I am rather optimistic on this front. When I compare Lithuanian gender culture of the 1980s and early 1990s, I see that integration into the EU and other European organisations played a positive role.
There have been changes in different levels of society and culture. International norms connected to gender equality did reach the Baltic states and empower women. We see women that are achieving a lot, actively influencing academic culture, and are active in business, the police force and the military. So, it is not just that we are seeing female leaders, because even in some very conservative cultures sometimes we see women in the top positions of power, who act like men (laughs).
How much does the cooperation depend on politicians and their agendas and personalities?
This goes to the very heart of the question of who matters in foreign policy, especially in peripheral actors, or small states.
From what was written about foreign policy in the Baltic states, the conclusion can be made that leaders’ personalities may not matter that much. Of course, there are some exceptions, but usually external factors are more significant: the Baltic states have common interests, they have common threats, so it is in their best interest to cooperate.
But I do think that personalities are important. For example, Dalia Grybauskaitė, Tomas Janeliūnas and Aušra Park demonstrated how important Grybauskaitė was in shaping foreign policy. Prior to her, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a major role, but she tried to influence foreign policy and assert herself.
At the beginning Grybauskaitė tried to move away from the former Soviet sphere and said that we are going to have relations and a partnership with the Nordic countries, in this she had some competition with Estonia’s president. Eventually those influences were not profound.
In Lithuania there was an important foreign policy debate in the early 1990s, whether to focus more on regional cooperation including the Baltics or whether to cooperate more with Poland. But, despite cultural similarities and geographical proximity, the relationship with Poland was not always warm. This is different now, but Polish conservatism going against the European norm might cause some problems in Lithuanian-Polish relations, despite the interests of Gitanas Nausėda and some others to establish closer relations. It is to be expected that alternatives to Baltic cooperation have been explored.
So even though personalities matter, much more important are the structural factors: the need to belong in a transatlantic community, in the EU, to have a common perception of threats, and common historical narratives and experiences. That is what pushes rationally-thinking leaders back to cooperation.
Is there a certain “crown achievement” of Baltic cooperation in the past and a major event that was a cause for concern for Baltic unity?
I would say that a “golden age” was the 1980s and 1990s, the Baltic way. There was a very clear agenda, a shared interest to achieve independence. We saw the proliferation of institutional agreements as the three Baltic states clearly realised that they wanted to get into the EU and NATO. Also, we saw cooperation in defence, the establishment of a peacekeeping unit in 1993, of a surveillance unit, and the Baltic Defense College.
Some of the political, institutional arrangements exist even today, they are still functioning, although they are not as important.
Then the mid 1990s was a cooling off period, there was a lot of jealousy from Lithuania and Latvia, when Estonia was invited to EU membership negotiations in 1998. This is illustrated by the fact that after the 1997 Baltic prime ministers’ meeting, there were no joint statements regarding joint Baltic cooperation. This was the low point.
In 2004, when the Baltic states joined the EU and NATO together, the relations warmed, even though the appeal of three-way partnerships declined. But the states began to work together within the EU, NATO and other international initiatives.
Another step was the conflicts, when Russia started acting aggressively again: the 2008 invasion of Georgia, and the big shake up in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. The threats became very real and there was a need to at least coordinate responses and perceptions of threats.
How do you see the future of Baltic cooperation, do you think it will grow and the states will become ever closer, or everything will fluctuate as has happened before?
One of the factors that may be an obstacle for closer cooperation, is that sometimes small states and peripheral actors begin to want prestige and status. They want to be respected more than they are or appear to be. For example, in the past Lithuania was saying “we want to be a regional centre, a leader”. That might be one of the things that will continue to happen occasionally in the future.
But if we look at the experiences of major traumas in history, I think there are a lot of similarities, the narratives are similar, so when it comes to these major security issues and threats, there will be cooperation, it’s definitely not going away.
Softer security challenges might cause some obstacles and even create a conflict, if, let’s say, Lithuania will want once more to become a regional centre or have more prestige.
What’s important as well is how the world sees the Baltic states, the prescribed identity. And it has been clear from the 1980s and 1990s, that we are seen as a unity. If you talk with someone who specialises in U.S. foreign policy, they might not know the cultural and political differences, they see it as a block. The prescribed identity from outside helps to promote cooperation as well.
As you have mentioned, the Baltic states share cultural similarities, history, common traumas, and similar threats. But is there something more that defines our joint identity and could the Baltic states further develop either a new approach to communality or more actively “advertise” their common identity on the international stage? Or are the cultural differences too big and Estonia will always remain a somewhat Nordic country, with Lithuania and Latvia sharing similar “Baltic” identity?
Often political scientists focus on the importance of national interests in the construction of commonalities and argue that cultural traits or common memories can be mobilised to pursue these interests. If there is a common interest, such as pursuing security vis-à-vis Russia, then common cultural traits, such as a common Baltic identity, can be conveniently mobilised and used. If not, then different cultural traits, real or imagined (such as “Nordic” identities), can be mobilised.
Given my interest in ontological security and memory studies in international relations, I tend to embrace a longer-term view, arguing that national security interest construction should not be separated from identity issues and experiences of a common past. This is why I tried to make the argument that common historical experiences and the habit of cooperation established during the interwar and post-Soviet periods have created a strong bond linking the Baltic states together—perhaps somewhat similarly to the cooperation of Benelux states after WWII.
Although my view may not be very popular, given the desire of the Baltic states to get rid of their “post-Soviet identities”, I believe that these post-Soviet identities can be the foundation for commonality and joint action on the international stage.
In my eyes, Baltic cooperation is probably at its best and is inspiring when the Baltic states support human rights and the desire for democracy in other former Soviet states, such as Belarus or Ukraine. Unfortunately, when it comes to states such as Belarus and the desire for a democratic future in this state, there is no enthusiastic support for these initiatives from “Western” Europe and only limited support from other “Western” countries.
In this context, a common Baltic post-Soviet identity can be seen as a motor for progressive action, and it can enable the Baltic states to continue to function in Europe as a moral voice, urging action for human rights in former Soviet republics.
Dr Dovilė Budrytė
Dovilė Budrytė, PhD, is a professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, U.S.
Her areas of interest include gender studies, trauma and memory in international relations and nationalism.
She has published, written and co-edited books about nationalism, nation building, trauma in international relations in the post-Soviet space and the Baltic states.
She has been teaching in several U.S. universities, as well as in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Source: Georgia Gwinnett College
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).