Vilnius has become the foreign policy centre of three Baltic states and this is a win for Tallinn too. The three states are growing out of their self-centric foreign policies.
European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton has just left Vilnius. He visited the Lithuanian capital to discuss Belarus and to check Lithuania as a potential location for European vaccine manufacture.
He adds to the list of high-level visitors that Vilnius has received in the past year and a half. Vilnius has become the foreign policy centre of the three Baltic states. Lithuania has created attention about Belarus and worked to sustain it. It was quick to express strong political support for the street demonstrations in Minsk last autumn and opened its country to the Belarussian opposition. Looking beyond the region, it has also stepped out of the 17+1 format and positioned itself clearly vis-a-vis China’s rise and the impending US-China rivalry.
Lithuania’s foreign policy rise has been noted in Estonia. Both the previous and current Estonian governments, led by Jüri Ratas and Kaja Kallas respectively, have been criticised for their slow response to the events in Belarus and their indecisiveness about China.
For example, when European countries established flight bans for Belarussian planes, the Estonian government was one of the last to act—even though it is unusual for Estonia to drag its feet in this type of foreign policy matter.
Who Is the Best?
When I speak with Latvians or Lithuanians, I often sense competition. How can we catch up with Estonia? In what areas do Latvia and Lithuania fare better than Estonia?
I do not take this seriously because Estonia’s perception is that we are competing with the Nordics, and are not particularly in competition with Riga and Vilnius. However, looking at Lithuania today, this perception may change.
Is this bad? No. It is good that each of the Baltic states is developing its own niches. Lithuania shares a land border with Belarus, so it is only natural that it should feel its neighbour’s troubles more deeply.
Latvia has tried to create a closer relationship with countries in Central Asia, developing special knowledge and expertise about the region, though whether it has succeeded or not is still open to debate. Estonia is known for its expertise and experience in cyber and digital affairs—although, as global competition is growing in this field, we might ask for how long it can continue to be a leading figure.
Another Estonian niche is to be the first point of contact for the region, especially for the Baltic states. When conducting research for a study about Estonia’s image in the EU some summers ago, I often heard that Estonia is looked at as the leader of the three states. Estonia can facilitate relations amongst the three and knows a great deal about what the Nordics are thinking. It is thus a convenient partner for others when input is needed from the Nordic-Baltic region.
Mutual Support, Not Envy
Lithuania’s rise should not be seen as a loss in Estonia, rather as a win. The three Baltic states are growing out of their self-centric foreign policies. There are other issues in the world besides Russia and the region’s security. Undoubtedly, these are priorities but expanding the Baltic states’ portfolios only strengthens their standing in the eyes of their allies and partners.
Tallinn should be keen to support Vilnius. Indeed, this should be a strategic goal. The recent criticism about the Estonian government’s ‘follower’s policy’ is fair because its current behaviour seems less a strategy and more the unfortunate result of negligence.
Today, foreign policy cannot be based on the hope that everybody will be friends, meaning there is no need to pick sides or to stand up for values and principles. Quite the opposite. Now is the right time for just that. Talking about the decline of the international rules-based order, human rights and democracy is not going save them. Action will. Lithuania seems to have understood that.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).