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Analysis: The Baltic States' Rocky Road To The EU

By Saulius Girnius

(Click here to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.)

With their respective accessions to the European Union on 1 May and to NATO in late March, the Baltic states have achieved their two most important foreign policy goals since regaining independence. NATO is seen as an ironclad guarantee of national independence, no small matter for countries that have spent most of the past two centuries under foreign rule. EU membership is considered to be the key to future economic prosperity, setting conditions for a level of personal welfare for their citizens that would otherwise be hardly attainable. Equally important, membership is public recognition at the highest level of the European identity of the Baltic states, a central aspect of the national identities of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Although insistently, even pugnaciously assertive of their being as much a part of Europe, as say France or Sweden, the people of the Baltic states have also feared, particularly during the years of Soviet occupation, that Western Europeans might forget or minimize this tie. Their presence in the first wave of postcommunist countries to join the EU is thus deeply satisfying and reassuring.

The effort to rejoin Europe has been a driving force in Baltic foreign policy from the very start, even when membership in the EU and NATO seemed a very distant, if not unimaginable, goal. Most Balts felt little kinship with Russia and the other former Soviet republics who joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and politicians who argued that exploring the possibility of informal ties with the CIS should not be rejected out of hand were vigorously rebuffed. By 1992, the initiatives of Baltic diplomacy bore their first fruits with the signing of separate trade and economic-cooperation treaties with Western European states. In 1994, all three countries signed free-trade agreements with the EU and further intensified European-integration efforts. Another important step was the signing in Luxembourg in June 1995 of the so-called European agreements, granting them the status of EU associate members. The Baltic states also submitted applications to become full members of the union.

When the EU began to evaluate the candidate states in 1997, it noted considerable differences in their developments and abilities to make necessary reforms.
Satisfying the stringent criteria for EU membership was no easy task for any state of the former Eastern bloc. For the Baltic states, it was arguably harder. Their incorporation into the USSR not only meant that they lacked the most basic elements of sovereignty while being burdened by lower standards of living and wages, but also that their economies and judiciaries were merely subdivisions of the Soviet whole. Many of the most important institutions -- such as the central bank, diplomatic corps, trade representatives, and the judiciary -- had to be created ex nihilo. The cutting of the umbilical cord was an extremely complicated task and one that had to be performed in the teeth of a severe economic recession.

When the EU began to evaluate the candidate states in 1997, it noted considerable differences in their developments and abilities to make necessary reforms. In July of the same year, the European Commission decided to recommend that only six candidate states, including Estonia, be invited to begin EU accession talks. The actual negotiations on admission, dealing with a broad range of topics in 29 areas, were begun only in 1998. The main deficiency of the other candidate states was their inability to establish a functioning market economy that could have liberalized prices and trade, along with the lack of an enforceable legal system with property rights. EU reports on the candidate states in 1997 stated that some -- including Latvia and Lithuania -- were capable of passing the EU political criteria for accession set in Copenhagen in June 1993, namely that they achieve "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities."

In the following several years, Latvia and Lithuania embarked on a series of economic reforms that stabilized their economies, attracting substantial foreign direct investment. By February 2002, the EU decided that both had made substantial progress and were ready to begin accession negotiations. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were among the 10 states that completed their accession negotiations at an EU summit meeting in Copenhagen on 13 December 2002, and each officially signed an EU Accession Treaty in Athens on 16 April 2003.

Lithuania was the first of the Baltic states to hold the required referendum on EU membership. Out of fear of low voter participation, the balloting was held over two days, 10-11 May 2003. Voter turnout on the first day was low, creating fears that the requirement of at least 50 percent participation by eligible voters might not be met. In an effort to persuade more people to vote, the owners of the largest foodstore chain advertised on both radio and television that various items -- such as laundry detergent, chocolate bars, or beer -- would be sold at giveaway prices to any customer who showed a sticker indicating that they had voted. In the end, 63.3 percent of the 2.6 million eligible voters participated, with 91.07 percent of the valid ballots favoring membership.

Estonia and Latvia held their referendums on 14 and 20 September, respectively. In Estonia, 64.1 percent of the 867,714 eligible voters cast ballots, with 66.5 percent voting "yes." In Latvia, 1.01 million, or 71.5 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots, with 67 percent voting "yes."

Russia never disguised its deep dissatisfaction with the Baltic states' NATO membership, stating more than once that it would be forced to take strong measures to counter the growth of foreign forces on its borders. Its comments on Baltic membership in the EU were more moderate, recognizing the right of the three states to pursue closer ties with whichever states they wished. However, Moscow intensified its campaign against what it described as the mistreatment of Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia, while protesting that the Kaliningrad exclave must not be left isolated from Russia after Lithuania joined the EU. Intense negotiations on the latter issue led to a compromise solution among the EU, Lithuania, and Russia. Moscow never eased its verbal attacks on Latvia and Estonia. The Kremlin made a final show of its displeasure when it demurred on an EU request that Russia assent to the inclusion of the new members in the EU-Russian Partnership and Cooperation Agreement immediately upon entry on 1 May. Russia responded by presenting 14 points it demanded in exchange for its agreement. Twelve of the points dealt with economic matters and were quickly resolved, but two concerned political matters: transit to and from the Kaliningrad Oblast through Lithuania, and the rights of the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. When the EU stood firm, the Russian minorities issue was deleted.

There is perhaps fitting irony to the failure of Moscow's last effort to slip a stick in the spokes of EU membership. Russia's objections were somewhat perfunctory -- Moscow knew that it would have to approve the extension of the agreement. But the fact that its efforts to raise the minorities issue were once again firmly rebuffed must have pleased the Baltic states for at least two reasons. It reaffirmed their acceptance by and integration into the EU; and it showed that they are now members of an organization that is dominant in Europe and cannot be cowed.