Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 7

by Terry D. Clark and Grazvydas Jasutis

Despite the apparent unity of the Baltic states, Lithuania has become the clear leader in the region’s efforts to gain membership in NATO. This is largely due to differences in social structure–specifically, the fact that Lithuania has a much smaller minority population than Estonia or Latvia.

Academics and politicians tend to treat the Baltic states as a single geographical entity, facing a common set of challenges and hence adopting similar strategies. Indeed, there are a number of reasons for supposing this to be the case, including a shared history of occupation and domination. This is particularly the case for Estonia and Latvia, both of which were dominated by Germany, Sweden, and Denmark at various times and neither of which experienced a national awakening until the late nineteenth century. In contrast, Lithuania achieved statehood in the early thirteenth century and became one of the largest empires in Europe before merging with Poland in 1569.

After Russia acquired all three Baltic states in the eighteenth century, their fates became fused, particularly during the twentieth century. Having achieved independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, all three were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, later occupied by the Third Reich, and finally reincorporated as Soviet republics in 1944. They were at the forefront of the reawakening of nationalist sentiments that was unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

The argument for treating the Baltic states as a single entity with a common identity is further supported by the cooperation that they have achieved since attaining independence in 1991. This has its historical roots in the brief period of independence during the inter-war period. At that time regional cooperation was formally established with the signing of the “Treaty of Good Understanding and Cooperation” in Geneva in 1934 and the subsequent establishment of the Baltic Entente, a military alliance.

Baltic cooperation in the post-Soviet era however has been substantially deeper and broader than in the inter-war period. In the political sphere, the three states have established the Summit of Baltic Presidents, the Baltic Assembly, the Baltic Council of Ministers, and the Baltic Council. The heads of state meet once or twice a year, as do delegations from each country’s parliament in the Baltic Assembly, which debates non-binding resolutions. The Baltic Council of Ministers is a forum for the heads of government and the ministers with jurisdiction over the policy issue under consideration. Decisions of the Council are binding on the three member states. The Baltic Assembly and the Baltic Council of Ministers hold a joint meeting annually within the framework of the Baltic Council, which delivers declarations concerning strategic issues for future Baltic cooperation.

A substantial set of institutions has also been created to facilitate economic cooperation, focusing on the gradual liberalization of trade and regional integration. Under the Baltic Free Trade Agreement, the three signatories abolished all customs duties and non-tariff barriers to the trade of industrial goods. The Baltic Free Trade Agreement on Agricultural Products is one of the very few international agreements establishing the tariff-free movement of agricultural products. The Agreement on the Abolition of Non-Tariff Barriers to Trade, which came into force on July 1, 1998, sets terms for the abolition of non-tariff barriers to trade.

An equally impressive set of institutional frameworks addresses defense and security matters. The three states have created the Baltic Battalion, which participates in international peacekeeping operations, and the Baltic Naval Squadron. In response to a U.S. proposal, they formed the Baltic Air Surveillance Network. It coordinates use of the region’s air space. In 1999, the Baltic Defense College was opened in the Estonian city of Tartu. It trains higher-level military personnel from all three states.