The Baltic Front Where Putin's Empire Meets the EU
The Baltic states view themselves as being at the front lines in a new East-West conflict. But even with large Russian minority populations, it's difficult to envision a Ukraine-style conflict taking shape in Lithania, Latvia or Estonia.
When Juozas Olekas was 10 years old, his parents took him on a long train trip from Vilnius to Moscow by way of St. Petersburg. They went as far east as Krasnoyarsk and then 70 kilometers (43 miles) further to Bolshoy Ungut, Siberia. The idea was for young Juozas to get to know the place of his birth.
Like thousands of other Lithuanians, Stalin deported the Olekas family in 1948 for what was supposed to be a decade." A beautiful land was governed by a murderous climate," recalls Olekas.
Today, he's the defense minister of Lithuania, which is now a member of the European Union. At 59, he's a portly man usually seen sporting a bow tie. His parents could never suppress their memories of the years in Siberia and the capriciousness of the Soviet regime. It's a history that also shapes his own identity.
"Russia is a real, distinct danger," he says. "It only understands the language of power. If we don't confront Moscow resolutely, it will get even more aggressive." Seven years ago, the Kremlin attacked Georgia without encountering any considerable resistance from the West. Now it's happening in Ukraine. Is it possible the Baltic states may one day face a similar assault?
Even Lithuania has possible points of attack, the minister says. Moscow supplies the exclave of Kaliningrad using railroad tracks that run through Lithuania. "The Russian army regularly trains with maneuvers for how it could free Kaliningrad," says the minister. "It involves occupying Lithuanian territory."
He says the latest crisis "finally woke up the EU. Our warnings are now being heard." NATO rehearsed an emergency response with large-scale maneuvers the week before last in Poland, with Danish and British fighter jets patrolling the Baltic airspace. A week ago Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced from the Estonian capital of Tallinn that America would station heavy weapons, including 250 tanks, in Poland and in the Baltics. The move came just after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on June 16 that he wanted to supply the Russian nuclear arsenal with at least 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In May, the Baltic states requested support from their NATO partners in the form of thousands of soldiers. Many Lithuanians, but also Latvians and Estonians, see their countries as the new front in the East-West conflict. Defense Minister Olekas recently reinstated compulsory military service in his country. Indeed, 25 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, people in the Baltics are trembling over their independence.
In political terms, the former Soviet republics and current EU member states lie on the border of two different worlds. A united Europe with democracy and the associated prosperity for almost everyone lies in the west. And to the east is Putin's Russia, a place of corruption and belligerence that is in the hands of the oligarchs and the intelligence services.
But the situation is blurred by the number of Russian speakers living on the European side of the border. A high percentage of the population in the Baltic states has Russian roots. The figure is relatively low in Lithuania, where only 6 percent of the population has Russian origins. But a full quarter of Estonians are of Russian descent. Meanwhile, in Latvia, which has the highest share, 27 percent of the population is part of the Russian minority. Those with Russian origins live primarily in cities and are loyal to their country, but they also have their own distinct identity.
In the Baltics, the issue of how the EU should address Russia is more than just a geostrategic debate -- it is an issue that hits home. The Baltic countries are struggling with their own identities and they are trying to find the best way of interacting with minorities. Do the Russian minorities see themselves as residents of their own countries, as Europeans or as Russians? And could a Ukraine-like scenario unfold here as NATO has warned?
Latvia: The Model Russian from Riga
In the capital city of Riga, almost half of the residents have Russian roots. And as in all three countries, in Latvia there is a political party that represents the rights of Russians. It is led by the most successful politician with Russian origins in the Baltics: Nils Usakovs. His Harmony party is primarily supported by Russian minorities. But, the mayor says, "We are loyal to Latvia, to NATO and to the European Union."
The 39-year-old has held office for six years and has a conservative demeanor, but with his well-honed English, he appears to be a man of aspirations who isn't likely to want to stay in the mayor's office forever. Usakovs is the prototype of an integrated Russian: He champions democracy, he's pro-European and he's unreceptive to Russia's nationalistic temptations.
His party is shaped by center-left, social democratic principles, but the term also has overtones of Russian nationalism in the Baltics. For years, social democrats in the region only voted for Russians. This nevertheless helped Harmony to become the largest party in parliament. Usakovs considers the fact that ethnic Latvians comprised one-fifth of those who voted for his party last year to be his greatest success. He also knows that he will have to build bridges if he one day wants to become prime minister.
When he was just 25 years old, Usakovs had already decided on Latvia and the West. A study last year found that the younger generation of those with Russian origins identify more strongly with their Baltic homelands than with Russia. Although these young people have a cultural affinity to Russia, they don't consider it to be their home either. It's a transition the older generation often doesn't make. Many never learned Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian because Russian was formerly the national language, their language.
From city hall, the mayor has a view of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia directly across the street -- a windowless cube of post-Soviet architecture. The years "1940 to 1991" are visible on the façade, a period of 51 years. The dates represent the duration of the occupation Latvians had to endure -- first by the Germans and then by the Soviet Union -- but also a tale of woe the country shares with its Baltic neighbors of Lithuania and Estonia.
After World War I, all three countries fought for their independence from the Bolshevists, the weak successor to the czar's empire. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to place the three countries under the Soviet sphere of influence. In contrast to Poland, though, the Red Army didn't march right in. The Soviets instead set up military bases in the Baltic countries and expanded influence from there in a way that would be echoed last year by developments in Crimea.
Moscow's troops and intelligence services took over the administrations in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Hundreds of thousands were deported or killed in an arbitrary manner. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians weren't able to free themselves from communism until 1990. The countries then became members of the European Union, experienced an economic boom and adopted the euro. To most people in the Baltics, this represented a full return to the West.
In the Soviet times, the Kremlin tried to instill a sense of national pride in the Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians. Among other things, it resettled Russians on the Baltic Sea, and they were favored for government positions. Their descendants, approximately 1 million people, today represent the Russian minorities in the Baltic states. After the countries gained independence, members of the Russian minority were allowed to maintain their schools and their folklore. To obtain citizenship, however, they are required to prove their fluency in the national language and history.
Almost 14 percent of Latvians -- a segment comprised of 276,000 people, or about half of the Russian population -- have not become citizens. In Estonia, this figure lies at 6 percent. These so-called non-citizens are allowed to live there. But, at least in Latvia, they are not allowed to vote or run for political office.
At first glance, there is little if any division in daily life. One-third of the marriages in Estonia and Latvia are mixed. But on many levels, the Russian minorities and the rest of the Baltic population actually do live in two distinct worlds and in two different information societies. The former get their news from Russian television and radio programs, all of which disseminate Kremlin propaganda. The others, by contrast, watch national programs. There is also a Russian-language broadcaster with programming from the Baltic countries, but it tends to run boring educational programs and is less captivating for viewers than the soap operas and shows produced in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Still, Mayor Usakovs' success demonstrates that Moscow's propaganda is unable to match the attractiveness of living in a state that observes rule of law and holding an EU passport. When Putin annexed Crimea, Usakovs declared the territorial integrity of the Ukraine to be untouchable. "It's possible that cost us a few votes," he says. As a precaution, he also criticized sanctions. "I don't believe that they will change Russia's policies," he says. "They only hurt the common people. And the Baltic economy."
But the sanctions against Russia haven't caused any serious damage in the Baltic states so far. The ruble's nosedive has proven a bigger problem. Many Russians can no longer afford to vacation at the elegant Baltic Sea resort of Jurmala, Latvia, or to shop at the boutiques in Riga's restored historical center. However, extremely wealthy Russians are still coming. The Internet site Re:Baltica has counted 10,000 new residents from Russia since Putin was re-elected president in 2012. Latvia has become a refuge for many who no longer feel at home in Putin's empire -- and this includes some oligarchs who are close to the Kremlin boss. Many took advantage of a special offer made by Latvia: Until recently, anyone who invested 70,000 ($77,676) in the country, even just the purchase of an apartment, qualified for a five-year residency permit. The hurdle has since been increased to 250,000, but the number of newcomers nonetheless continues to grow.
Estonia: Narva, a Russian City in Europe
The city most commonly named in the West when the prospect of a Ukraine-style scenario in the Baltics is raised is Narva, Estonia. The city on the eastern edge of the EU is also quite Russian. A post-Soviet gloom is still present here: wide streets, prefabricated slab buildings, five giant shopping centers. Ninety-five percent of the people in Narva speak Russian. They live in a Russian world. For most Estonians, Narva remains a black spot on their own internal map, a city that is foreign to them.
On the eastern side of the town, the river that gives the city its name flows by. In the middle of it is the border to its mighty neighbor. A 400-meter-long (1,312 feet) bridge connects the EU to Putin's empire. High above it is a castle; across from it on the Russian side is the old czarist fortress of Ivangorod.
Valery Chetverikov, a "stranger," as Russian noncitizens are called in Estonia, lives nearby. Chetverikov is a 75-year-old engineer. When he held the mayor's office from 1974 to 1985, Narva was a provincial village on the northwest periphery of the Soviet Union. At the time, few would have imagined that the Baltic states would gain independence one day.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Chetverikov suddenly found himself living in another country. He never applied for a passport and he still can't speak Estonian. He doesn't like how the Estonians treat the Russians. They are not given citizenship and he says that Russian war veterans don't get enough support.
Certainly, he says, many people in Narva are sympathetic to Putin, many think that Kiev is governed by "fascists" and that Crimea is part of Russia. But separatists who might support the division of Narva don't exist here and there's no party representing Russian minorities, he adds.
Soon after gaining independence, Estonia developed into a European role model. It is a pioneer in IT and e-commerce; its people vote electronically. The country is booming but people with Russian origins are more likely to be unemployed and to suffer from poverty. Large segments of the Russian minority population live in the capital city of Tallinn or in the structurally weak eastern part of the country.
"I think that the Russians here belong to Putin's empire one day and to the EU the next day," says Katri Raik. "They have a double identity." Raik, who has a doctorate from the University of Marburg in Germany, was a state secretary and is currently director of the university in Narva. Ten years ago she left Tallinn for a post in the city. Her assignment: To set up a university in Narva so the Russians would not have to go to St. Petersburg to study. The university building was just completed two and a half years ago: cement, steel, light oak and Scandinavian transparency. It could be an embassy for the new Estonia in post-Soviet Narva.
Raik is teaching 650 students, nearly all Russians, to be teachers here. Classes are taught in Russian, but students are required to speak fluent Estonian by the end of their studies. After their exams, many of Raik's students leave Narva to work as language teachers in Sweden or Finland. It's a trend Raik views as a success. "My students are looking to the West," she says. They don't want to belong to Russia.
There are myriad reasons, too. Estonia enjoys a good level of legal security. The retirement pensions are higher than in Russia and the hospitals are better. Raik's university was built with EU funds and the main streets, the riverside promenade and the electrical grid were all renovated with European subsidies.
In the Baltics, Europe won the battle for the Russians: more and more of them are coming over to the West. Not even former apparatchiks question the changes implemented with the fall of the Iron Curtain. And what concerns people most here is not the Russian minorities living here -- but rather the unpredictable president in Moscow.
At the end of the day, it appears that the defining characteristics of being Russian in the Baltic states are to speak Russian and watch Russian-language television -- and ultimately little else.