Baltic nations offer ex-Soviet states a Western model
The tiny states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, having shed their Russian-dominated past and joined the EU and NATO, are looking to help their post-Soviet neighbors to do the same.
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Last year the Estonian government created the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership, mostly to pass on its expertise in "e-governance" to countries like Georgia and help them increase their ties with the EU.Skip to next paragraph
"The goal is to make societies there more democratic and citizen-friendly," says Vahur Made, the center's director. Scholarships for "EU integration" studies and workshops on e-governance are offered to officials and engineers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine.
"What we want to spread and deliver is the political and philosophical understanding of e-governance," says Mr. Made. "It makes society more open, more transparent, visible – in a way it restricts ... government activities."
Countering Russian influence
In the tiny Baltic countries occupied for so much of their existence, nobody can forget the hundreds of thousands of Baltic nationals deported to Siberia between 1944 and 1955, nor the fact that for 50 years, the Russian language was imposed upon them.
"I still see Russia as an untrustful enemy," says Pabriks, Latvia's defense minister. "It does not mean we must not try to engage with Russia, but let's not be naive about the success."
Experts agree that promoting security and democracy in the region has become key for Europe. The Russian-Georgian war in 2008 served as a warning of what could happen to a neighbor of Russia.
"It helps to make safer the external border of the EU," says Heiko Pääbo, director of the Centre for Baltic Studies at the University of Tartu. "It's always good to have allies on your border, rather than countries that have hostile attitudes toward the union."
Last year's parliamentary elections in Latvia, where a third of the population is Russian, saw the rise of a pro-Russian party, Harmony Center. Experts say it was more a manifestation of people being fed up with harsh austerity measures there. Still, Mr. Pääbo says the current administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to increase its sphere of influence in Baltic countries. Pääbo calls it "Russian imperial thinking."
"In the context of the current Russian administration trying to reestablish, if not the former Soviet empire, at least its sphere of influence, it's important that those eastern neighbors look more toward Europe than toward Russia," says Pääbo. "As much as they can try to help, the Baltic states will try to help those countries be more European than more Russian."
"There is a geopolitical battle going on over the hearts and minds of the people," agrees Hannes Hanso, a researcher with the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn. "Which way those countries are heading in is important."
Estonia, he says, has become pragmatic, differentiating economic and political issues. "Now, Russia is the No. 1 economic partner for Estonia. But I cannot foresee any top-level political meetings between the presidents or prime ministers of Russia and Estonia anytime soon."
Experts agree on the importance of strengthening ties with the Eastern Europe and South Caucasian regions. But there are limits, says Mr. Hanso.
"We were somewhat naive 10 years ago in thinking that those transitioning countries definitely wanted to do the same as we did," he says. "Now we have to be more realistic: We cannot expect that those countries will inevitably look West rather than East."
"Promoting reform is a two-way street," says Hanso. "We've come to realize that the success story we had in the Baltics is not so easy to repeat elsewhere."