The interpretation of the imperial past, of the legacy of both the Russian and Soviet Empires, has always been a key issue in relations between the Russian Federation and the Baltic States. Now we seem to be at a stage where the past is becoming less important for the future, and new prospects are opening up for cooperation around the Baltic Rim.
As relayed by the independence movements in the Baltic States in the late 1980s, the imperial past was a story of constant oppression of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian nations by the Russian Tsars and, later, the Bolshevik dictators. The story in Soviet schoolbooks was, by contrast, one of liberation from capitalist oppression and the joining of the “fraternal family of the Soviet peoples.”
At the beginning of the political transition, Boris Yeltsin and the Baltic independence movements were allied against the Soviet authorities headed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian democrats seemed to share the Baltic interpretation of imperial history, and supported the idea of independence for the Baltic republics. However, as new relations developed after the collapse of the USSR, such issues as troop withdrawal, minority rights, territorial disputes and smuggling began to cloud the horizon.
By 1993, Russian society began to entertain bitter feelings toward the Baltic states, ranging from disappointment on the part of the “democrats” to covert hatred among some of the most radical “patriots.” This rapid change in attitude is difficult to explain on the basis of various pure material interests, without taking into account identity politics.
The breakdown of the USSR caused an acute identity crisis in Russia, since, unlike the rest of the former Soviet republics, the Russian Federation as a state and a nation had no anchoring in the past that could be read separately from the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Facing in addition a total economic collapse and extreme political instability, the Russian leadership under Boris Yeltsin chose the easiest way to answer the question “What is Russia?” It opted to define Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union–and also, implicitly, of the Russian Empire. A complete break with the Soviet past was ruled out, a decision that gave the Russian Federation a firm historical foundation for its new nation building project. However, the repercussions of this choice were significant, wide-ranging, and gradually revealed themselves over time.
RUSSIA, THE BALTICS AND EUROPE
In terms of its relations with the Baltic states, Russia’s decision to assume the role of successor state of the USSR had the immediate effect of bringing to the fore the issue of “compatriots,” that is, the Russian speaking populations in Latvia, Estonia and, to a lesser extent, Lithuania. It was quite natural that the Baltic Russians were perceived by Russian society as “our people,” and therefore enjoyed full sympathy as regards their civic and other rights. But the choice of post-imperial identity for Russia made this a hot issue for the politicians–and one that they could capitalize on.
As a consequence, the new Russian political community tended to be redefined in old terms to include all the “compatriots” abroad, a conceptualization that was obviously unacceptable to the Baltic peoples. In addition, Russia started to claim for itself the role of guarantor of security and stability in the entire post-Soviet space, which led to Moscow’s staunch opposition to NATO enlargement. The possible accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to NATO was perceived as an almost existential threat, since it would signify the intrusion of an eternal adversary into lands that for centuries had been part of imperial Russia.
The total negation of the Soviet past was an important part of the nation building process in all three Baltic republics. It manifested itself, inter alia, in trials against the veterans of the Soviet army and security services, and sometimes even in demands on Russia for compensation for damage caused by the Soviet occupation. Again, because of identity politics, these symbolic moves caused outrage in Russia.
Hostility toward the Baltic States was also encouraged by the fear–not totally unfounded–of Russia’s possible isolation from Europe. This has always been a major driving force in Russian foreign policy. Paradoxically, the criticism directed at Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius was in part a discursive practice aimed at securing Russia’s own European identity. By singling out the Baltic states as the black sheep of the European family, Russia could establish itself as a “normal” European nation. That is, though Russia might have some internal problems of its own (Chechnya being the foremost example), its shortcomings were forgivable when compared to what Moscow argued were the even greater sins of others. This strategy was hardly successful internationally, but worked almost perfectly on Russia’s domestic political stage.
Economic conflict was one inevitable consequence of this definition of the Baltic States as a hostile Other. As it was considered inappropriate to pay “them” for the transit of “our” oil, for example, the Baltic Oil Pipeline System project was launched. This project was aimed at building new facilities for the shipment of oil through Russian ports rather than through Ventspils (Latvia) and Butinge (Lithuania). The economic rationale for the new export facilities is questionable–and the project is thus controversial–because it is difficult to calculate all the costs involved, including those related to environmental risks. But leaving this economic dimension aside, the project was seen by Russians as a perfectly legitimate way of asserting the relationship of “us” versus “them.”
Over the past couple of years, however, the situation has started to improve. When President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, it was hard to imagine that Russia would remain quiet if and when the Baltic States were accepted into NATO. However, when the decision to admit seven new members was announced in Prague last November, the Russian reaction was surprisingly reserved. In the mainstream media, there was no talk about threats resulting from the enlargement.
The prospect of the European Union’s enlargement had once been a cause of even greater concern, but this was predominantly for pragmatic reasons, the most obvious being the problem of the Kaliningrad exclave. Even in this case, however, the bulk of the criticism generated in Russia was directed at the EU, while a high degree of understanding was shown by Moscow for the Lithuanian (and Polish) position.
At the level of common stereotypes, the transformation has been even more striking. In St. Petersburg at least, one now comes across magazine articles that both praise the success of the economic and social reforms in the Baltic States and advocate using them as a model for Russia. Similarly, references to “Estonian technology” are used as an argument to assert the guaranteed high quality of an advertised product. Old disagreements persist, but it is clear that Russia no longer needs them to promote its European identity. On the contrary, the image of the Baltic republics as the part of Europe closest to Russia, an image that had existed even during the Soviet era, now seems to be undergoing a revival.
This change in the Russian position is in part related to the post-September 11 transformation of world politics. But that is not the whole story. It is important to emphasize that Russian identity under Putin is rooted even more deeply in the Soviet past–the “new old” anthem is only one, albeit the most visible, indication of this effect. What is gone, though, is the feeling of existential insecurity, the anxiety regarding Russia’s identity and its belonging to Europe.
Today Russia is a crucial member of the antiterrorist coalition and it cooperates closely with the EU and NATO; it thus feels itself part of the “civilized world.” Moreover, from within Russia it appears that the Russian position has not undergone any fundamental change. Rather, it is the “civilized world” that has accepted Russia’s role in the struggle against international terrorism everywhere in the world, including Chechnya. Therefore, Russia no longer needs to lash out at the Baltic States in order to feel like a better European.
It is beyond the scope of this article to consider the impact that this new situation is likely to have on individual rights and freedoms–in Chechnya, in Russia or at the global level. In the Baltic Sea region, however, the new setting provides a unique opening for building transnational networks that could consolidate this “de-securitized” environment.
It should be kept in mind that Russia still defines itself as a great power and the only legitimate heir of the Russian Empire and the USSR. And in the Baltic States, archaic anti-Russian nationalism is also far from having become a thing of the past. Creating and developing a new space for productive interaction, one that would promote a non-zero-sum understanding of regional affairs, is therefore crucial to ensuring that the disentanglement from identity-related conflicts is rendered irreversible. It seems that we are now prepared to forget about our past for the sake of a better future, and this opportunity should not be missed.
Viatcheslav Morozov is an associate professor in the School of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University and director of the European Documentation Center in St. Petersburg. He is currently working on a research project entitled The Idea of Europe in Russian Foreign Policy Discourse.