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Baltics: Soviet Psychological Legacy Hinders Stance On EU Integration

  • Valentinas Mite

The latest survey conducted by the European Commission says that of all European Union candidate countries, support for EU entry is lowest in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The Baltic states differ from the other Eastern and Central European candidates in that they were occupied by the Soviet Union for half a century. Sociologists and analysts say the psychological impact of long-term occupation and the Soviet legacy have both contributed to Euroskepticism in the Baltics.

Prague, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A new survey conducted by the European Union in early July puts support for EU membership in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia among the lowest of the 10 European EU candidates.

The survey says only 38 percent of Estonians, 46 percent of Latvians, and 55 percent of Lithuanians are in favor of their countries' joining the EU. The numbers lag well behind other postcommunist countries like Hungary, where 70 percent support EU membership, or Slovakia, with 66 percent support.

Analysts say one of the reasons behind Baltic Euroskepticism is the psychological legacy of the Soviet occupation, which lasted nearly half a century.

Vytautas Radzvilas works at the International Relations and Politics Institute in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Radzvilas said EU candidate countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were Soviet satellites but retained formal independence and were not subjected to forced Russification.

Radzvilas said the occupation destroyed all traces of Baltic culture that had developed in the years of independence between 1920 and 1948. An entirely different way of living and thinking emerged from the Soviet period. "[Lithuanians lived] in an economic system with no private property, no personal initiative, or responsibility, in a society where the principles of law functioned only to support the rights of the rulers. It formed a slave complex. On the other hand, however, this way of living with no responsibility became attractive to many people," Radzvilas said.

Radzvilas said this "slave complex" is now the main obstacle to EU integration and the main source of Baltic Euroskepticism. He said many people do not have a clear understanding of what Europe is and why Lithuanian politicians are urging them to join the EU. They do not support the many changes and reforms that are a prerequisite to EU membership.

But Radzvilas argued that, in fact, EU membership would give Lithuania a chance to reform itself and shake off its painful Soviet legacy.

Latvia's dilemma is much the same. Aigars Freimanis is the director of the Latvias Fakti polling and opinion group. He told RFE/RL that, as in Lithuania, Euroskepticism in Latvia is largely the result of the Soviet occupation.

Latvians, he said, have been left with a negative attitude toward change and politics as a whole. This attitude -- passed on from the Soviet era -- encourages distrust of all new political ideas. "I think cynicism toward any social proposal is also a part of the Soviet legacy. Every idea, social or political, is accepted by the society in a very cynical fashion. Nobody wants to believe anything. On the whole, skepticism is dominant. People don't want to listen to any new ideas, they don't want to analyze a given situation. People are not inclined to believe anyone," Freimanis said.

Freimanis said the Latvian media have indirectly encouraged this attitude. Over the last five years, the media have painted an unrealistically idealistic picture of the EU, taking what he called an almost Soviet-style propagandistic approach. But many Latvians, accustomed since the Soviet era to dismiss unwaveringly positive news, feel that the EU holds nothing promising for them.

Freimanis also said a different kind of Euroskepticism is affecting the minds of younger Latvians. The younger generation, believing that the world equates them with Russians, is worried that its identity will once again be lost within the vast expanse of the EU before Latvia ever has a chance to assert its national identity.

Estonia, meanwhile, is the smallest Baltic state but the most Euroskeptic. Andrus Saar is the director of the Saar Polls polling agency. He said Estonia has experienced independence only for short intervals and that people are afraid to lose it yet again. "The first period of Estonian independence was in the 1920s and lasted around 20 years. And now an independent state has existed for just 10 years. The experience of independence was so short, and you must understand that there are sociological and psychological factors which influence people," Saar said.

Saar said the Estonians have deep distrust and fear of any political unions. These feelings are ingrained in their collective memory because the history of Estonia is a centuries-long history of occupations by Germans, Swedes, and Russians. It is not so much the Soviet legacy but a lingering fear of occupation in general that keeps Euroskepticism in Estonia so high.

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