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Baltics: Diaspora Makes Successful 'Return'

  • Jeremy Bransten

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was a psychologist in Montreal before returning to Riga (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, September 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- They chair influential think tanks, sit in the boardrooms of major companies, legislate in parliament, and now occupy the highest offices in their respective countries.

They are the "returnees" -- Balts who fled Soviet occupation in the 1940s, often as small children, and started new lives, mostly in North America.

But they never forgot their homelands, even as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania disappeared off world maps. They stayed politically active and maintained their language ties.

And 15 years ago, after the three states regained their independence, the exiles started to return home. Often, their children came as well.

Small, But Influential

Although the total number of returnees is actually small -- estimated at only a few thousand at most -- their influence in Baltic government and business is large, as illustrated by the fact that the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all returnees.
"We didn't have a foreign service, we didn't have a military. So that
meant there was a much greater opening, an opportunity for emigres and
exiles to come and build up these structures."


Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus was born in Kaunas in 1926. Forced into exile in 1944, he spent his working career at the U.S. Environment Protection Agency in Chicago. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was born in Riga, fleeing Soviet occupation with her parents in 1945, she eventually became as psychologist in Montreal.

In the case of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, he is the son of Estonian exiles. He was born in Stockholm and later grew up and received his education in the United States before "returning" to Estonia after independence. Ilves also served for a time as the head of RFE/RL's Estonian Service.

Specific Reasons For Success

So what accounts for the unique success of "returnees" in the Baltics, especially in government? Andres Kasekamp, a professor of political science at Estonia's Tartu University, says there are several factors. First is that so many jobs requiring foreign experience suddenly became available in the Baltics in 1991.

"Unlike the [postcommunist] Central European countries, we had to start so many things from scratch. We didn't have a foreign service, we didn't have a military. So that meant there was a much greater opening, an opportunity for emigres and exiles to come and build up these structures, which obviously need some kind of international experience or expertise," Kasekamp says.

Valdus Adamkus lived in Chicago before returning to Lithuania (RFE/RL)

"In the Central European countries, you had top-heavy military bureaucracies and foreign services and the people who were there jealously guarded their prerogatives and their careers whereas here, we had to start from scratch, so that meant we desperately needed our emigres from the West," he added.

Size is also a major factor. The three Baltic countries have such small populations -- smaller together than the city of Moscow -- that a few returnees can wield great influence. The nature of the Baltic diaspora, says Kasekamp -- unlike the diaspora from other countries in the region -- also makes it more politically active.

He notes that due to the Baltic states small size, the "human resources are very limited, so they're very grateful to anyone who can make a contribution to the Estonian or Latvian or Lithuanian cause. Also, the emigre communities, particularly in the Estonian and Latvian case, are mostly all people who left in 1944 as political refugees and the communities were very strongly political as opposed to some [communities] from other countries that had more economic motives of simply having a better life."

Speaking To The World

All this is not to say that returnees always have an easy time of it. They are sometimes painted as outsiders, resented by some people for not having shared the hardships of Soviet occupation.

But Kasekamp says most people in the Baltics don't feel that way. And they see their returnee presidents as assets that allow their small countries to punch above their weight in the international arena.

"Ilves and Freiberga and Adamkus were all elected certainly because they were considered to be more effective and better connected and better communicators in the international arena," he says. "So you could make the case that, like [President Mikheil] Saakashvili in Georgia, that they speak the same language as America, as Western Europe, so they can make our case heard better than some of the post-Soviet bureaucrats who did hold these jobs until recently."

At least one Baltic leader has even greater ambitions. Latvian President Vike-Freiberga has announced her candidacy to succeed Kofi Annan when he steps down this year as United Nations secretary-general -- although she admits it will be an uphill battle.
Russians In The Former Soviet Union

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RUSSIANS OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA: A total of some 30 million ethnic Russians remain in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including large diasporas in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This historical legacy has often been a source of tension between Russia and its neighbors. "Support for the rights of compatriots abroad is a crucial goal," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address. "It cannot be subject to a diplomatic or political bargaining. Those who do not respect, observe, or ensure human rights have no right to demand that human rights be respected by others."


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