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.

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/File
A youth rides high on a skateboard at Cathedral Square in Vilnius, Lithuania. The Baltic states jumped away from Russia; now they want to help others do it, too.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Tiina Lokk knows what it's like to get a neighbor's help when it's needed most.

Years ago, as her native Estonia struggled to right itself after decades of Soviet domination, the country's film industry was in shambles. But thanks to assistance from neighboring Finland and Sweden, Baltic filmmakers rescued their industry.

Today, Ms. Lokk directs the Black Nights Film Festival, the Baltics' biggest such event, held each November. And she makes a point of inviting filmmakers from former Soviet republics (from Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine to Georgia and Uzbekistan) whom she befriended in Moscow in their film-studying days – to help them move on from their Russian-dominated past the way the Scandinavians aided Estonia.

"If you've been helped, you have an obligation to help other countries," says Lokk.

What Lokk is doing with the film industry, Estonia and its Baltic neighbors have been doing on a larger scale. Over the past few years, the tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have made promoting reform across most of the former Soviet regions their main foreign-policy focus. Building on their successful transition from communist states into modern democracies, the Baltics have become advocates for Eastern Europe and South Caucasian regions one day joining the European Union and NATO, implementing programs helping those countries govern themselves more efficiently and transparently.

It is a new but natural role for them. For years, their eyes were set on the West, their energy focused on securing their independence and economic model, and integrating EU structures. Now, buoyed by their robust growth, they are turning to help old former Soviet friends by sharing their own transition experiences.

"The Baltic states have been promoting the European idea in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine, and in all the eastern states," says Kakha Gogolashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "They've worked harder and better than anybody else so that those countries would be better supported in European institutions."

"They are a mental bridge," Mr. Gogolashvili says. "Sometimes they play the role of interpreters, explaining to the European Union our real intentions."

In the wake of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, the EU designated Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine as "eastern partners" that Europe should pay more attention to.

"It is crucial that the EU pay more attention to us," says Gogolashvili. "We have no other option than to Europeanize ourselves and become part of a united Europe."

A way to give back

The fact that they share a common Soviet past makes helping those countries reform after Soviet rule a given. "Eastern partnership countries are very important for us Balts," Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks says. "We understand their problems better than anybody else in the EU. We enjoy their trust much more than anybody else, so it is natural that we are, and should be, more active in this direction."

Kristina Vaiciunaite of Vilnius, Lithuania, was a teenager when her country broke free of the Soviet Union in 1991. She remembers how, after independence, Scandinavians came to Lithuanian schools and offered students scholarships to study abroad.

Now, as head of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Vilnius, a nonprofit group advocating Belorussian issues in Brussels, she does the same thing, helping students of Belarus make the journey to Vilnius to study and attend youth camps.

"When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania wanted to enter the EU and NATO, they felt that the Scandinavians were the best spokespersons for them, as their closest neighbors," concurs Richard Baerug of the Baltic to Black Sea Alliance in Riga, Latvia, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting Georgia's and Ukraine's accession into NATO.

"Now it's time for the Baltic countries to pick up that relay and try to assist as much as possible new development further east."

An encouraging path

Ms. Vaiciunaite's and Mr. Baerug's projects are among a steadily growing number of initiatives that the three Baltic states have set up in recent years to promote democracy and good governance in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – mostly in Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine. Focus areas include the training of government officials, defenses against cyberattacks, and promotion of e-governance.

Results have been mixed in places like Belarus, but signs are encouraging in Georgia. Long torn by civil war and poverty – and its existence at risk following the war with Russia – Georgia has become the best-run ex-Soviet state.

When voters elected a new government in October, the transition went smoothly. "They passed the test," says Vaiciunaite. "There were no nasty fights on the streets, and that's new for Georgia."

A natural new role

After the Soviet Union dissolved, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania doggedly refused to join Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia in their new federation of former communist states called the Commonwealth of Independent States. Eager to shed their "Eastern European," or "ex-Soviet states" labels, they made entering the EU and NATO their priority.

It was a monumental task.

"Even the most courageous of dreamers could not have thought this was achievable," remembers Mr. Pabriks, who was Latvia's foreign minister from 2004 to 2007. But they did, partially through a diehard, and painful, form of capitalism, and now it is their model they are trying to export.

In particular, Estonia transformed itself virtually overnight from Soviet state to one of the most modern democracies in the world. And the Internet was a major tool.

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.

"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."

Mixed record

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."

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