OP-ED: The importance of the Baltic States | Op-Ed
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts of the author’s trip to the Baltic States. Today: the importance of the Baltic States in the context of recent foreign affairs.
I have to start with our mode of transport through the Baltic States. Cruise ships are perhaps the most diverse ecosystems in the world: a captain from Italy, waiters from every third world country, and our cabin porter from tiny French Guiana in South America. The passengers are no less diverse, just older and better off economically. I enjoyed watching conservative Republicans from the United States share tables with families from Hong Kong, Egypt and Nigeria. Like Dorothy, they knew they were no longer in Kansas. Multiculturalism is alive and well on the high seas.
I seemed to be one of the few who felt comfortable raising political issues with other passengers in this confined environment. But what better opportunity to take the global temperature on Trump, Brexit, the yellow vests of Paris, Putin and the protests in Hong Kong?
On our last trip to Denmark, a family from Hong Kong was worried that they would not be able to return home due to the airport protests. A couple from Paris described Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron as a robot, without emotional affect. The English with whom we spoke all saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the ticket to economic and political ruin. Everyone wanted to hear our thoughts on President Trump and what the future holds for America.
We have learned that every Baltic country has adopted some degree of cradle to serious benefits for its citizens, with high taxes paying for these programs. Free health care, education, pensions and care for the elderly are universal. From the many conversations I have had with our tour guides and with local citizens, democratic socialism is deeply rooted in the DNA of the Baltic States as a model ensuring the basic needs of all citizens. I have heard many complaints about political leadership, but none about the business model of democratic socialism.
Then we learned that promoting social programs for all citizens does not translate into open borders or massive immigration. Almost everyone I spoke to in every Baltic country we visited wanted some form of limited / controlled immigration. It has not been difficult to translate this widely held view into the rise of populist political leaders throughout the Baltic region.
The Baltic States have their own history of multinational trade versus national interests which I found fascinating. The Hanseatic League was a powerful commercial and defensive confederation of merchant and town guilds, first formed in the late 1100s. The League came to dominate the Baltic maritime trade for many centuries. The Hanseatic towns had their own legal systems and operated their own armies of mutual protection and aid.
On several of our excursions, we heard stories of local medieval citizens being forced to choose between following the orders of their king or the transnational Hanseatic League. Making the wrong choice resulted in a mass slaughter. Entire communities have been burnt down. The power and influence of the Hanseatic League based purely on economic self-interest, with little religious or national affiliation, was greater than any multinational corporation or international trade pact in existence today.
The champions of the European Union have designated the Hanseatic League as a kind of prototype version of economic unification. All the Baltic countries we visited belong to the EU. Unlike Britain, no one we spoke to seemed eager to leave the EU. Ease of travel and free trade with EU partners across Europe have served the Baltic region well.
On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that these countries would agree to expand the EU into a political alliance and give up their ability to rule as independent nations. Patriotism is high in tiny Latvia with its two million citizens, Denmark with its 6 million, and Russia with a population of over 144 million. Each country has its own creation myths, national heroes and milestones which are honored with great pride.
One of the challenges across the Baltic Sea and indeed across Europe is to recognize the importance of celebrating a unique national identity, without allowing patriotism to turn into nativist and racist views. To illustrate this point, I will focus on tiny Estonia, which has a population of 1.3 million.
As Estonia’s fortunes have changed over the years of the modern era, one of its main streets has been renamed chronologically: Lenin Street, Hitler Street, Stalin Street and now Freedom Street. Young urban Estonians are fiercely independent and no longer want to interfere in their affairs. But Estonia’s remarkable economic growth has remained in its capital, Tallinn, and poverty remains high in rural areas.
In July, the Conservative People’s Party won enough seats in parliament to be included in the new government. Party leaders are mobilizing against migrants, same-sex partnerships and the mainstream media. They claim to be the champions of rural Estonians and are often aligned with Russian political positions.
Progressive Estonians have formed a coalition against the far right with a new movement: “Yes to freedom, no to lies”. They advocate not attacking the extreme right head-on, but rather talking directly to citizens about “Estonian democratic values”. As in the United States and in all Western democracies, the struggle to maintain liberal democratic principles is a real crisis. But for Estonians, a non-liberal outcome has immediate consequences. If democracy loses and Russia dominates society again, a main street in Tallinn will be renamed Poutine Street.
For centuries, the Baltic Sea region has been the buffer between Western Europe and Russia. Nothing has changed this reality. Under Putin, the Russian bear is once again on the prowl, seeking to expand its sphere of influence and appease domestic dissent. Americans should pay special attention to tiny Estonia, the canary in the coal mine.
Gary Stout is a Washington lawyer.