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Eastern Europe

Baltic States are no longer ex-Soviet

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In the early days of the current year, the ambassadors of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Germany collectively wrote a petition asking German media to stop referring to the above-mentioned nations as “former Soviet countries”. The issue had been prompted by the Soviet Legacy column on the German news portal Die Zeit.

The Facebook page of Latvia`s embassy in Germany posted an image of the letter co-signed by the Latvian ambassador Elita Kuzma along with her counterparts from Estonia and Lithuania.

In the letter to the German portal, the ambassadors noted that their countries were independent from 1918 until 1940 and did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily but were occupied and annexed, while the majority of Western democracies, including Germany, never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltics.

The letter also claims that the Baltic states did not create themselves from nowhere in the early 1990s after the downfall of the USSR but restored their independence that had been severed by the Soviet rule, thus declaring continuity of their statehood. The Baltic states are not successors to the Soviet Union`s statehood and rights and therefore cannot be politically defined as former Soviet republics.

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry also touched upon the issue by stating that the portal responded to the remark, pledging to stop using the concept inaccurate in terms of international law.

Interestingly, the article from “The Legacy of the Soviet Union”series, to which the ambassadors draw the attention was actually written by Sergejs Potapkins, an opposition member of the Latvian parliament.

According to an Estonian news site, the misnomer, frequent in the German-speaking countries, is regularly used to describe any territory that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

In order to demonstrate the absurdity of referring to the Baltic states as “former Soviet”, a Latvian media agency made fun of different countries by, too, recalling their past: “…The letter [of the ambassadors] was sent in the former Prussian capital, Berlin…News outlets in the former Roman and Norman colony of Great Britain, the former Carolingian territories of the Holy Roman Empire and former Grand Monarchy of France, and the former British and French colonies in North America have also been known to do the same thing.Curiously the tendency is less prevalent in the former Warsaw Pact countries and even in the former Tsarist Empire and former dominions of the Golden Horde to the east of Latvia…”

That was not the first attempt of the Baltic trio to get rid of their Soviet history and legacy that might somehow be extending up to now.

Immediately upon restoring their independence, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania decided to abandon the Russian sphere of influence and drift towards the West. As a logical result of the relevant processes, all the three countries took part in the 2004 enlargement of NATO and the European Union by becoming full member of both organizations. The EU accession process ran in parallel with that to the NATO. Although the two were not officially linked, one apparently gave additional impetus to the other. For the Baltic states, NATO membership might be even more attractive and vital. Security was justifiably their priority since their entire recent history had been marked by an absence of security. The EU was perceived to be primarily a Single Market and lacking in a security dimension. This was partly because joining the EU appeared to be an eventuality, whereas the Baltics’ NATO membership was not a foregone conclusion since there was strong opposition to it mainly by the Kremlin.

In 2011, Estonia switched to euro. So did Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania in 2015, having completed the Baltics` entering into Eurozone.

Today the three countries are liberal democracies, a fact which indeed pushes them further away from their Soviet heritage and other ex-Soviet countries.

In a parallel process, the three countries strive to build a Nordic identity. This tendency is especially strong in Estonia, which refers to its cultural and historical ties with Sweden, Denmark and Finland; with the titular people of the latter, the Estonians belong to the same language group. In December 1999, then Estonian foreign minister, who would later ascend into presidency, Toomas Hendrik Ilves delivered a speech entitled “Estonia as a Nordic Country” to the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. According to another Estonian politician, Marko Mihkelson, head of Riigikogu`s foreign affairs committee, his country`s belonging to Northern Europe “make(s) perfect sense in geographic and geopolitical terms.”

It is therefore no surprise that the Estonian society has even debated over a change of the flag: from the post-Soviet tricolor to a Scandinavian-style cross design with the same colors. According to the supporters of the proposed version, it would symbolize the country`s links with Nordic countries.

Estoniaflag

In order to further develop a Nordic brand, Estonian diplomat Eerik-Niiles Kross even suggested modifying the country`s official name in English and several other foreign languages from Estonia to Estland (which is the country`s name in Danish, Dutch, German, Swedish, Norwegian and many other Germanic languages).

Indeed, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been receiving the strongest support from their northern neighbors even prior to their independence. The Nordic countries were the first to open their borders, introducing visa-free regimes with the Baltic countries, facilitated their smooth integration into European and transatlantic institutions. A regional cooperation platform called Nordic Baltic Eight plays an important role in deepening the relationship between the two regions.

While Euroskepticism may today prevail in some EU member-states and the European Union itself has been recently shattered by a wide of range of issues from the Greek crisis to the flood of refugees to the Brexit, leading some pundits to forecast ultimate disintegration of the Union, the Baltic three seem to be ardent supporters of the concept of a united continent. In the light of Donald Trump`s statements on diminishing the American influence in the eastern part of Europe, the Baltic nations that constantly feel the breath of the Russian bear on their necks are haunted by the ghost of the Soviet Union. Especially in this complicated period, when both Russian officials and experts call on reviving the borders of the USSR and, sometimes going even further, of the Russian Empire. Fears were especially intensified after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine just like it incorporated the Baltic countries during the WWII and backs the ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking population in the eastern Ukraine nowadays. Accommodating a big portion of Russian minorities, which are accepted as an anachronistic relic of the Soviet past, the Baltic nations, especially Latvia and Estonia have serious reasons to worry.

According to Leonid Bershidsky, the anti-Soviet arguments by the Baltic countries, however, make little sense. Willingly or not, they were part of the USSR. They were subject to its economic planning and migration policies, a history that is far more recent than the colonial past of the U.S. or almost any former part of the British Empire. The Baltic nations` large, often disenfranchised, Russian minorities are a lasting legacy of the Soviet past, with Concord, the party representing the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, winning a plurality of the vote in the last parliamentary election. “Post-Soviet” is not an insult but a statement of fact.Going back even further, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia spent most of the last two centuries as part of the Russian Empire. Russian military might forced them to gravitate east rather than north, adds L.Bershidsky.

The officials in Russia, the recognized successor-state of the USSR, have, in their turn, repeatedly denied the occupation calling it a voluntary incorporation. According to the Russian viewpoint, no military force was used for the incorporation and it was made by the decrees of the legitimate governments in Baltic states in accordance with international law. Moreover, Russia’s main diplomat, Sergey Lavrov stated in one of his interviews that the USSR had modernized economy and industry in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and made more investment per capita in the Baltic countries than in the other constituent republics of the former Union. It was a response to the claims of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn to the reimbursement of “the Soviet occupational damage”. Only the compensation to Latvia was first estimated by the Latvians at 185 billion euro, later having been raised to 300 billion euro.

Despite the efforts of the Baltic states, it seems to be tough to get rid of their red past as the Soviet heritage is in the living memory and still continues to exert profound effects on the current situation in the region. However may the Baltic people hate to confess it, both Soviet and post-Soviet thoughts are still influential in their countries. Perhaps when this mindset is finally gone, others may then stop referring to them as former Soviet states.

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.

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Eastern Europe

Will Russia serve the old wine in a new bottle?

Angela Amirjanyan

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Nowadays, one of the main features of global political developments are non-violent or color revolutions. These revolutions are brought about by wide-spread corruption, poverty, unemployment and a deep gap between masses and the ruling elite with the latter being the biggest political risk for the ruling party. Most analysts argue that these factors are combined also with outside support, which can culminate in the revolution. However, what happened in Armenia after a few weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the Velvet revolution, that brought down the regime and has exercised true people power, is considered to be unprecedented for it didn’t owe its origin to the external assistance or wasn’t an attempt by ‘‘US to export democracy’’ in Armenia. The geopolitical factor was initially excluded.  In fact, Russia has traditionally had negative attitude towards color revolutions and has seen them ‘‘as a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties’’.This means that Russia, desperate to maintain its own standing in the Caucasus, was likely to intervene in the events unfolding in Armenia. However, the Kremlin didn’t view turmoil in Armenia as a Ukraine-style revolution. Asked if Russia would intervene, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the matter was “exclusively an internal affair” and Russian action would be “absolutely inappropriate”. Moreover, after Armenia’s unpopular leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Armenians “a great people” and wrote, “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”

The prospect of a Russian intervention was low for 2 key reasons

One of the possible reasons behind Russian inaction was that Moscow didn’t regard the revolution in Armenia as a threat to its geopolitical prerogatives, but rather as an opportunity to make a strategic move through a global panic over Russia’s continued warlike behavior. Satisfied that this is genuinely an internal Armenian issue directed at an incompetent and ineffective government, Russia proved with its muted response to Armenia’s color revolution that Kremlin embraces the policy of non-interventionism.

Secondly, a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society representatives and youth was prevalent in Armenia in the past decade. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly decided in 2013 to join Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) over EU Association Agreement.Yerevan’s decision of September 3, 2013 to involve in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was mostly conditioned by Moscow’s ultimatum imposition, which left a deep track in the perception of Armenia-Russia relations and formed a comparatively new cliché. Anti-Russian sentiments were on rise in Armenia in recent years due to major levers of influence that Russia maintained over Armenia: Armenia’s corrupt oligarchic system and the military threat coming from Azerbaijan. Civil society and the opposition in Armenia viewed Russia as the sponsor of the autocratic, oligarchic system of governance in Armenia. They have traditionally criticized the government for having closest ties with the country which provides 85 percent of arms export to Azerbaijan-a country which is in continuous conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.  This anti-Russian sentiment reached its apex in 2016 when the intense fighting broke out in Karabagh known as Four-Day War. This drew the public attention to the Russian-supplied arms which played a role in the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

Both opposition leaders and civil society members demanded not only Armenia’s exit from the EAEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country. The anti-Russian rhetoric was useful for both the Armenian government and the opposition to alert Russia not to take Armenia for granted.Hence, in one way the April Revolution in Armenia was a test for Russian-Armenian relations, and Russia viewed it as a new impulse for mutually beneficial relations aimed at restoring the damage of Russia’s protective image among Armenians.Needless to say,Armenia is important to Russia, as losing Armenia would cause fundamental changes in Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. Furthermore, Armenia can’t cherry-pick among its closest allies because its landlocked position limits the freedom to maneuver in its foreign policy and its economic and defense imperatives dictate a close alignment with Russia. This was reaffirmed by new prime minister and protest leader of Armenia, Nikol Pashinian, who not only supported maintaining the current Russian-Armenian relationship but also suggested a “new impulse” for political and trade relations during the meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 14. During another meeting a month later, Armenian PM expressed his hope that ‘’the relations will develop more effectively on the basis of mutual respect for the best interest and sovereignty of the two States’’.

On the whole, Armenia will continue to pursue its “Complementarian” or multi-vector foreign policy, which means that no radical change in the realm of foreign policy is expected to take place.  Yet there is no strong anti-Russian current in Armenian political and society rhetoric. The recent civic movement was significant in realizing the potential of Russian-Armenian mutual relations for economic development and security. Undeniably, Russia should adopt new approaches towards Armenia and it should realize that under new circumstances the backward-looking policies are destined to be counter-productive. In Armenia people hope that Kremlin wouldn’t serve the old wine in a new bottle.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania deserves better life

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The latest expressive headlines on delfi.lt (the main Lithuanian news portal) such as “Gender pay gap increased in Lithuania”, “Sudden drop in EU support pushes Lithuania into middle income trap, finmin says”, “Lithuanian travellers spent EUR 186.5 mln abroad this year” and “Lithuania’s Jan-May budget revenue EUR 14.3 mln below target” clearly demonstrate difficult situation in the country. The only positive thing in this fact is Lithuanian authorities do not try to hide the social problems or they just cannot do it anymore.

While in the international arena Lithuania continues to be very active and promising, the internal political and social crisis as well as decrease in living standards of the population make Lithuanians worry about their future. Idleness of the Lithuanian authorities makes the country poorer.

The most acute social problems today are emigration of young people, unemployment rate, increase in the number of older persons and poverty. The appalling consequences of such phenomena are alcoholism and suicides of the Lithuanians.

According to Boguslavas Gruževskis, the Head of Labour Market Research Institute, in the next 5-6 years, Lithuania must accumulate reserves so that our social protection system can operate for 15 years under negative conditions, otherwise serious consequences are expected.

Over the past two years the level of emigration has grown by more than 1.5 times. In 2015 the country left about 30,000 people, in 2017 – 50,000. This is a social catastrophe, because, in fact, the country has lost the population of one Lithuanian city. And the situation with depopulation cannot be corrected by an increase in the number of migrants coming to Lithuania. Their number is too small because Lithuania cannot afford high living conditions for newcomers like Germany or other European countries and may serve only as transitory hub.

As for unemployment rate and poverty, in Lithuania, 7.1% of the population is officially considered unemployed. The more so according to the Department of Statistics for 2016, 30% of Lithuanian citizens live on the verge of poverty, which is 7% higher than the average European level.

One of the most profitable sectors of the economy – tourism, which allows many European countries to flourish, Lithuanian authorities do not develop at all. Even Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis plans to spend his summer vacation in Spain. This fact speaks for itself. Skvernelis notes that spending vacation in Spain is cheaper than in Lithuania. Thus, he is lacking the will or skill to do something with the situation as well as other high ranking officials. He is named one of the main presidential candidates but does nothing to improve the distressful situation.

At the same time, Lithuanian President wants more foreign troops and modern weapons, increase in defence budget and uses all her skills to persuade her NATO colleagues to give help. Probably, she is afraid of her own people, which is tired of helpless and indifferent authorities, and wants to protect herself by means of all these new weapons and foreign soldiers?

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Eastern Europe

Spoiled Latvia’s image in the international arena

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Latvia is actively preparing for one of the most important political event of the year. Parliamentary elections will take place in October 6, 2018. Submissions of the lists of candidates for the 13th Saeima elections will take place very soon – from July 18 to August 7, 2018. But the elections campaign as well as all political life in the country faces some problems which require additional attention from the authorities. And these problems spoil the image of Latvia as a democratic state which might respect the rights of its people.

This is a well-known fact, that the image of the state is composed of several components: it heavily depends on its foreign and domestic policy directions. The more so, internal events very often influence its foreign policy and vice versa.

Latvia considers itself a democratic state and tries to prove it by all possible means. But all attempts fail because of a serious unsolved problem – violation of human rights in Latvia.

It is not a secret that about one third of Latvians are ethnic Russians. Their right to speak and be educated in their native language is constantly violated. This problem is in the centre of attention of such international organizations as OSCE and EU. This fact makes Latvian authorities, which conducts anti Russia’s policy, extremely nervous.

Thus, the Latvian parliament recently passed in the final reading amendments to the Education Law and the Law on General Education under which schools of ethnic minorities will have to start gradual transition to Latvian-only secondary education in the 2019/2020 academic year. It is planned that, starting from 2021/2022 school year, all general education subjects in high school (grades 10-12) will be taught only in the Latvian language, while children of ethnic minorities will continue learning their native language, literature and subjects related to culture and history in the respective minority language. This caused

Hundreds joined a march in the centre of Riga in June to support Russian-language schools in Latvia. The event was held under the slogan: “For Russian schools, for the right to learn in native language,” as the government wants to switch the language of the education system to Latvian.

The European Parliament deputies called for support of Russian education in Latvia. 115 people have signed the joint declaration that will be forwarded to the Latvian Sejm and government. The declaration is signed by representatives of 28 EU countries, and almost all parliamentary factions. Every 7th deputy supported the necessity of the Russian school education in Latvia. The document authors marked that this is unprecedented expression of solidarity towards the national minorities, especially Russian residents of the EU. Authors of the letter sharply criticize the education reform that takes away from children of national minorities the right to study in their native language.

On the other hand the parliament contradicts itself by rejecting a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

The matter is in parliamentary election will take part not only Latvians, speaking Lantvian, but Latvians, who speak Russian. Their voices are of great importance either. The authorities had to recognize this and tempered justice with mercy.

After years of oppressing Russian speaking population and violating their rights Saeima committee this month rejected a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

It turned out that politicians need ethnic Russians to achieve their political goals. They suddenly remembered that Campaigning Law should not promote discrimination because publicly active people should not have problems using the state language.

“Wise” deputies understand that Russian speaking children are not going to participate in the elections while Russian speaking adults can seriously damage political plans. Only this can explain the controversy in the Parliament’s decisions.

In Russia Riga’s decision to transfer the schools of national minorities to the Latvian language of teaching considers as unacceptable and could cause introduction of special economic measures against Latvia as well as condemnation by the international community.

So, Latvia’s on-going war against its residents also could become a reason for deterioration in attitudes not only with Russia but with EU and OSCE that will have unpleasant economic and political and even security consequences for Latvia. It is absolutely clear that making unfriendly steps towards own citizens and neighboring states, Latvia can not expect a normal attitude in return.

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