BALTIC COOPERATION IN A CHANGING WORLD
On 23 August 1989, as a young history student, I was standing with my university mate Urmas in the Baltic Way on the Estonian-Latvian border, completely unaware of the enormous energy field I was connecting myself to. It was simply impossible to grasp the extent of the event or its international and historical significance at the time, on that gravel road among the fields and woods of Lilli. I still get goosebumps today when I think that it took only three weeks of planning to bring together over one million people and form a human chain over 600 kilometres long through the three occupied countries.
The Baltic Way took place exactly 50 years after the signing of the secret Stalin-Hitler Pact (the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact – MRP) which triggered World War II. The disintegration of the world order in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles and the consequent international catastrophe cast Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into a struggle for survival which lasted for several decades. This painful experience and the inability of the pre-war diplomacy to find a larger common ground created a deep conviction in all three of us that it was impossible to remain neutral next to Russia.
While before the 1930s the three Baltic states had come from very different historical backgrounds and the roots of their democracies were at different depths, the MRP and the Soviet occupation bound us together. The Baltic Way symbolised the objectively inevitable intimacy between three small countries and nations, and this laid the foundation for the close cooperation that continues until today.
The race to break out of the grip of the empire ended at the same moment for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Although Estonia enjoyed a slight advantage in the European Union direction, and Lithuania was submitted to NATO in an expedited manner, we all eventually became Member States of the EU and NATO together in spring 2004. This was one of the best examples of countries of a region transforming to modernity, because despite the internal policy conjuncture we were able to take advantage of a window of opportunity which opened for only a short moment in the turmoil of global events. This success was built on our reputation of unity and cooperation, with assistance from the Western countries in the shape of their diplomatic capital since 1994, when they helped us to get rid of the foreign Russian forces.
The climate of the end of history was short-lived for us. In 2008, Georgia’s unfortunate experience drove home to us how nearly we ourselves had avoided a fiasco. Russia occupied one fifth of the territory of an independent neighbouring country just to prevent the enlargement of NATO into the Southern Caucasus region. This took place only four years after the Baltic states had made it to the defence alliance. Had we been even a couple of years slower, we would not be members of the Alliance today.
Over the last 30 years, a note of irony has often crept into conversations about Baltic cooperation, or the differences between the three countries have been underlined. But who has never done this in regard to their neighbours? On the other hand, no region in the world is as tightly interlinked or is working together as closely towards similar objectives as the Baltic states. Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius have no alternatives. And even if they did, the recent history and geography unites us more than any flash-in-the-pan conflicts could divide us.
In policy and diplomacy, it is often interpersonal contacts and personal chemistry that play a key role. Over the years, my communications with my Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues have been a mixed bag. There have been times when the communication has suffered from less than perfect language skills or belonging to different political families. But regardless of this, the three flags are still side by side out in the world, and from afar we are heard to be talking the same talk.
The ongoing corona pandemic has negatively affected diplomacy in many ways, but it has been mostly a uniting factor in the communication between the Foreign Affairs Committees of the Baltic national parliaments. While up to some years ago we relied purely on face-to-face meetings, today we are using communication channels like Signal and WhatsApp, not to mention video conferences, just like the rest of the world.
I guess an excellent personal chemistry at the level of the Chairmen plays a role here as well. Since the beginning of this year, the Chairmen of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Committees have been in closer and more productive contact than probably ever before. We clicked from the first video meeting. We cut out the empty talk right from the start. From the get-go, we concentrated on actions that we could do together.
Although the personal background and political affiliation of each one of us is so different, we are connected by our in-depth knowledge of foreign policy and our will to create a strong common ground. My Lithuanian colleague Žygimantas Pavilionis was a diplomat for 26 years before entering politics, also serving as an Ambassador to the USA. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Saeima Rihards Kols is the youngest among us, but his legal knowledge, excellent English skills, and instinctive grasp of the international undercurrents make him a valued colleague. My CV includes journalism and the longest experience in chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee (four terms in 20 years).
As soon as the pandemic allowed, we made our first joint visit to Ukraine, including the frontline close to Troitske. This has been followed by joint work trips to Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, France, and Moldova. We combine our forces everywhere, coordinate our messages, and make every effort to strengthen the security of the Baltic states. We have also issued several joint statements (on topics such as Nord Stream 2 or the hijacking of the plane in Belarus), and our excellent personal connections have also convinced our colleagues from Germany, Poland, France, UK, USA, European Parliament, Spain, Italy, Czechia, Sweden, and elsewhere to co-sign with us. After the hijacking of the Ryanair flight, we managed to draft a joint statement and get it fully signed on the same day within the space of a couple of hours.
This work has been noticed, although we have been active for only a few months. We have become so inseparable that we jokingly call ourselves the Baltic musketeers. As long as the political reality allows us to work on our positions, we will keep our flags flying high.
There is nothing new in the diplomacy of the Baltic states. The three of us have asked for international support and attention from everyone starting with presidents and ending with MPs and diplomats. Of course, this cannot replace the independent foreign policies of each country, but synergy holds power. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania sitting behind a single desk presenting their message in a coordinated way is a rare example of regional unity and much appreciated by our allies.
Even if we are sometimes mistaken for the Balkan countries (Donald Trump has been among those who have put their foot in their mouth on this one), we are not letting that stop us from working towards our goals. How would it even be possible any other way to stand for our security than by making sure the countries in the common tactical operative space are engaged in cooperation? The common air policing in the Baltic countries, NATO defence plans, and the crucial joint planning of air defence are the real outcomes of the cooperation so far and in the future.
Having said that, as small countries we are each other’s competitors in the best sense of the term. If foreign or domestic policy change gears in one of the three countries, the trickle effect will inevitably be felt in the other capitals. For example, the quicker pace of reforms in Estonia in the 1990s also pushed Latvia and Lithuania to move forward. Lithuania’s recent powerful international visibility also forces Riga and Tallinn to step up their game. Impacts are quick to cross borders, especially if this concerns topics like our energy security or the stability of the whole region.
The era of social media also has its influence on the pace and dynamics of diplomacy, which is why the foreign policy activities of countries sometimes walk one step ahead of information exchange and coordination with partners. Riga and Vilnius did not hide their surprise when President Kersti Kaljulaid made a visit to Moscow. The same can be said about the recent actions of Lithuania regarding China.
Just like Estonia could not cope without Latvia, we could also not cope without Lithuania, and vice versa. We will be successful if we stay on each other’s side and adequately judge the cross-border effects of our independent foreign policy decisions. Because we find it so important to walk side-by-side with our Western allies, the pro-active foreign policy of the Baltic states should be harnessed for the benefit of a common and strong allied space. This is particularly important now that the world is again becoming more unstable.