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Baltics: Nordic Cooperation Linked To Historical, Practical, Geopolitical Reasons

  • Valentinas Mite

Cooperation between the Baltic and Nordic countries is very close. Nordic countries are advocates of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in their aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. They are the biggest investors in the region and are also helping the Baltic states develop a democratic society and institutions. What makes this cooperation so effective?

Prague, 27 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Cooperation between Baltic and Nordic countries is intensive, and political contacts are frequent. The past week alone saw two high-level meetings between Baltic and Nordic officials.

Yesterday, foreign ministers from the two groups met in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to discuss NATO and European Union integration. A week ago, prime ministers from the two regions discussed the same issues in the Latvian capital, Riga.

Relations between the two groups of countries include not only meetings but also cooperation on a practical level, involving such areas as culture, education, environmental protection, and infrastructure.

Some analysts say such close cooperation is simply a revival of age-old historical contacts, interrupted by the half-century Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Others say the Nordic countries are exploiting the opportunity presented by the collapse of the Soviet bloc to expand their cultural and economic influence around the Baltic Sea.

Yvonne Sandberg-Fries, a director of the Baltic Institute, based in Sweden, praised such cooperation and said the main reasons are historical, going back to Sweden's influence and domination in the region in the 17th century. "People in this region have had close contacts for a very long time, before we were cut off, so to speak, from each other. You know, the Baltic Sea in the 17th century was surrounded by Sweden, actually. So of course, there are historic ties between the people who [live] in this region," Sandberg-Fries said.

Sandberg-Fries said closer economic ties are a win-win situation for both groups of countries. The Nordic countries are the biggest investors in the Baltics. By October 2000, Nordic investment represented more than 40 percent of total direct investment in Lithuania. Similar figures are reported from Latvia and Estonia.

Sandberg-Fries said cooperation is also important for the security of the region because the Nordic countries do not want any conflicts on their eastern borders. Nordic countries are advocates for the Baltic states in their efforts to join both NATO and the EU.

Mindaugas Jurkynas, an analyst at the Lithuanian Institute of Foreign Relations and Politics, said geopolitics is a more important factor than history. He said Nordic countries became active in the Baltics because of the new world order: Swedish and Finnish neutrality no longer made sense after the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1990.

Jurkynas said the Nordic countries, sensing new opportunities, started quickly integrating into the EU and became active in regional cooperation with the newly independent Baltic states. They hope these closer ties will pay off when the Baltic countries eventually join the EU. "The cooperation which was consolidated during 12 years, starting from 1990, creates good political conditions [for both Nordic and Baltic countries] to lobby [their regional interests] in Brussels and seek greater attention for the Baltic region," Jurkynas said.

Timofei Bordachev, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, also believes cooperation between the Baltic and Nordic countries is a development of a post-Cold War Europe. "I think in this case intentions coincide with potential. [In] the case of the Baltic states, the intentions of the Nordic countries to become patrons of some of the newly independent states that appeared after the downfall of the socialist system coincided very well with the financial capabilities [Nordic countries] have. The resources needed [to support the Baltic states] are not as large as those you would need to support other, [bigger] former socialist countries," Bordachev said.

He said such cooperation is a setback for Russia because Nordic support and investment that otherwise might have been directed to the western regions of Russia now goes to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Jurkynas noted, however, that Russian regions, such as Kaliningrad or Karelia, do receive Nordic support.

Egidijus Vareikis, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Lithuanian parliament, told RFE/RL that cooperation with Nordic countries is much easier for the Baltic states than cooperation with Russia or with the EU in Brussels. He said the Nordic countries place no conditions on cooperation. "Nobody has any claims concerning the history, geography, or the present situation. When we look at cooperation with Russia, there exists a trail of history, a trail of former relations -- not always decent business. When we look at cooperation with the EU, they always say, 'You [candidate countries] are of such-and-such status,' and this means, 'We will cooperate with you on such-and-such terms, maybe differently in the future.' Nordic countries pay no attention to these statuses, and that is why our modest projects are being developed successfully," Vareikis said.

Vareikis said it also helps that many of the objectives of Nordic foreign policy coincide with Baltic objectives. For example, he said Denmark might support Baltic membership in NATO since during the Cold War, the country acutely felt the threat of aggression from the east, and now wants the borders of NATO to be pushed as far to the east as possible. This, he said, also coincides with the interests of the Baltics to join NATO. He said the ministers of defense of the two groups of countries have met regularly since 1994.