Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 208

Toomas Ilves, who has resigned in high standing as foreign minister of Estonia (profile in the Monitor, October 1), is sharply questioning the concept of Baltic unity. That concept essentially assumes that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania possess a common identity as “Baltic states,” form a “region” together, have identical interests stemming from those factors and act (or ought to act) internationally as an entity.

In two statements he made recently, however, Ilves maintains that “the Baltic states” is a construct made up by the West in the past. The construct persists as an international perception at odds with current local trends. Ilves describes Estonia as a North European country, specifically a “postcommunist Nordic country” which is integrating at a rapid pace both economically and culturally with Sweden and Finland. Lithuania, for its part, often refers to its Central European identity and tends to gravitate toward Poland. “The remaining question is what to do with Latvia,” Ilves concedes.

Confident that Estonia has reformed more quickly and more successfully than Latvia and Lithuania–a judgment reinforced by the European Union’s invitation to Estonia for accession talks–Ilves cites his experience as foreign minister. In doing so, he suggests that “Estonia’s image is often tarnished by policy errors or failures of either Latvia or Lithuania.” Consequently, “[his] goal as foreign minister was to dissociate Estonia from the ‘Baltic state’ image.” This public admission should be no revelation to Ilves’ two Baltic counterparts.

Ilves, now a prominent politician, considers that economic differentials between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania preclude the formation of a viable single market. At the same time, the perception that the three countries form a unit is useful to their quest for NATO membership, because the alliance treats them as a geopolitical unit. But any advantage [to Estonia] ceases “as soon as you go beyond the NATO issue.”

Although some Estonians would disagree with Ilves–as was the case at a recent, high-level business and political conference on “Marketing Estonia”–his policy reflected a consensus in the Estonian leadership, and was sometimes received painfully in Riga and Vilnius. Public opinion polls add their own revealing story. In Estonia, Ilves tops the politicians’ popularity ratings and is considered a good presidential prospect. In Latvia, a majority of respondents in a recent poll felt that Estonian politicians tend to break Baltic unity–a concept particularly important to Latvians because of their country’s more difficult political situation (BNS, October 30, November 6, 9).