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Baltics: Analysis From Washington -- Asking The Wrong Question

  • Paul Goble

Tallinn, 8 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ever since the European Commission suggested including Estonia in the next round of European Union expansion talks, many in the West have been asking questions that reflect Soviet era categories rather than current realities.

Instead of asking whether the Republic of Estonia now meets EU standards -- an entirely reasonable query and one easy to answer in the affirmative -- some Western officials and analysts instead have asked why Estonia was invited but not her Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania. Or they have asked how a "former Soviet republic" could possibly be included in this process before some of the other countries of Eastern Europe were taken in.

As so often is the case, the way such people pose these questions says far more about them than any conceivable answer could about Estonia. Such questions reflect a kind of conceptual inertia in which terms developed during Soviet times continue to be employed today, long after the Soviet Union disappeared from the face of the Earth.

More than that, they reflect an unwillingness to recognize that the independent countries are becoming ever more dissimilar, and these questions reflect unstated reluctance to encourage such developments lest they anger Moscow or complicate Western analysis and prescription.

Sometimes, asking the wrong question may in fact not matter all that much. Indeed, in the case of the Estonia-EU discussions this may be true.

Latvia and Lithuania are currently working hard to meet EU requirements and may be invited to start accession talks in the not too distant future, thus ending this "Baltic Question."

But on other occasions, asking the wrong question because it is framed in terms that are no longer relevant may have serious, even disastrous consequences for the countries involved and for others as well.

For example, constant references to the Former Soviet Union or to its derivative term, the Newly Independent States, not only blind many to the actual situation on the ground in these countries, but sends some very disturbing messages.

Repeated use of these terms implies that some in the West think about these countries only as a collectivity rather than as a set of individuals. This usage suggests that some in the West now view these countries as less than fully equal to other states around the world.

More than that, this conceptual confusion may have serious policy consequences. Talking in these terms has the effect, undoubtedly unintentional, of encouraging rather than restraining those in Moscow who would like to see Moscow's influence across the region return to its former scope. And this use undermines the ability of leaders in many of these states to break out of the communist past which weighs so heavily upon them

In short, if Western leaders and analysts continue to formulate their questions in terms drawn from a past that no longer exists, they may not only get the wrong answers but also contribute to the emergence of a future very different from the one they and the countries of this region now say they want.