Baltic observations – I – introduction

The Baltic republics Lithuania, Latvia, and Lithuania, where I spent my summer holiday this year, have much to enjoy for visiting tourists: historic cities with well-preserved mediaeval or Art Nouveau centres, a beautiful countryside with unspoiled forests, bogs and lakes, a friendly coast with sand beaches, dunes and islands. The occasional Molvanian experience notwithstanding, the general level of what is on offer is such that it is often almost impossible to believe that, unlike the former Warsaw Pact countries in Central Europe, this was part of the Soviet Union only fourteen years ago.

Many people in the old EU, myself not excepted until recently, tend to look at the Baltic republics as one big Finland in the making: hi-tech and efficient in their economy, transparent and democratic in their politics. This picture is largely correct. Yet, on closer inspection, traces of the past still remain. There are of course the obvious ones which have to do with incomes and the economic situation: According to Eurostat figures, all three of the Baltic countries’ inhabitants saw their purchasing power rank bottom of the EU25 list in 2002, with predictions for 2006 showing not much of a change in this respect.

But figures also show solid GDP growth rates in the order of 5% or more over the entire region – and even if Latvia remains bottom of the GDP list over that entire period, it will have seen its GDP per head (in purchasing power standard, PPS) rise from 39% to 47.8% of the EU average. This is quite something. And I have to say that the buzz was palpable in all the cities we visited, perhaps most of all in Riga. There was constantly this exciting feeling you get almost nowhere in the old EU: the feeling of an abundancy of opportunities everywhere around you, and plenty of evidence of people grabbing them, setting up businesses and realising new ideas. So yes, the Baltic economies are burdened with the heritage of their communist past, but they are dealing with it pretty well and developments are going fast in the right direction.

The economic heritage, however, is a relatively superficial thing. Value patterns are much more difficult to change. This is, to an extent, a good thing, as it means that the totalitarian regimes of Nazis and Soviets that occupied the Baltic region for most of the past century (the latter did so twice) have not been able to impose their value systems (or lack thereof) as effectively as they wanted. On the other hand, this also means less palatable value patterns (whether they developed before the occupation, during the occupation, or as a reaction to occupation) may also survive longer than one might wish for.

I came across a few examples where values patterns, at the very least, evoke questions, which I intend to deal with in three future posts:

  • Dealing with the past – a case study on occupation museums
  • Gay prides – soviet values and post-soviet diversity
  • The nationality question – dealing with the Russian minority

I should add immediately that they are by no means typical for the Baltic region alone: similar issues are at stake in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, and it is not difficult to link most of them, one way or another, to issues currently discussed in countries of the old EU which also have to do with questions of identity, fear and responsibility.

So in a way, you could always consider this short series on the Baltics as a case study in the broader perspective of Central and Eastern European values in particular, or European values in general.

One Response to “Baltic observations – I – introduction”

  1. Pascal Van Hecke Says:


    “”My favorite explanation of the differences of the Baltic countries is the story of how Lenin statues fell when their freedom was realized.

    In Lithuania, the people gathered en-mass to beat it to a pulp.
    In Latvia, a committee was formed and after much deliberation it was carted away.
    In Estonia, some called a Finnish crane company via cell phone and it was removed promptly.”

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