In 2002, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia achieved their main political aims -- they were invited to join NATO and the European Union. How did they achieve their aims, and what are their main challenges for the future?
Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) Two days after the summit in Prague, when NATO handed Lithuania an invitation to join the alliance, U.S. President George W. Bush said:
"The long night of fear, uncertainty, and loneliness is over. You're joining the strong and growing family of NATO. Our alliance has made a solemn pledge of protection, and anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America. In the face of aggression, the brave people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia will never again stand alone."
These words were exactly what the cheering crowds in Vilnius wanted to hear. In committing the U.S. to aid the Baltic states in case of aggression, Bush extended a security guarantee that the Baltic states had sought since regaining their independence in 1991.
Three weeks later in Copenhagen, the Baltic states were invited to join the European Union, membership in which is as strong a guarantee of economic stability as is possible in the era of globalization.
Membership in NATO and the EU have long been the paramount foreign policy goals of all three Baltic states. Membership does not only mean security and economic prosperity but also symbolize the Baltics' return to Europe and the acknowledgement of this return by the European community.
Tunne Kelam, deputy speaker of the Estonian Parliament, spoke to RFE/RL about what the invitations mean for the Baltics: "That provides us with the most important things. I mean, things for every citizen, not only for the state -- that is, stability, security, and a more clear social dimension."
For the past 10 years, Russia has been perceived in the Baltics mostly as a threat to their regained independence. Kelam believes membership in NATO and the EU will create new conditions that could lead to better relations with Moscow.
Andrius Kubilius is a former prime minister of Lithuania who is now a member of the Lithuanian parliament. He told RFE/RL that, although Vilnius's main aims have been achieved, challenges remain. One of the most sensitive is the implementation of the EU-Russia agreement on Russian transit from the Kaliningrad enclave through Lithuanian territory: "The Lithuanian position (on the problem of Russian transit) will become more definite only when all the technical details become clear. Now these details are still being discussed, and I have the impression that the further we move, the less clear the matters will become. More and more technical details appear when we come to the practical problems of how to realize this agreement between Russia and the EU here in Lithuania."
Kubilius says another challenge will be the continuation of economic reforms to ensure that Lithuania is capable of competing in the EU.
The NATO and EU invitations come at a favorable time for the Baltic states, which find themselves in the middle of a strong economic upswing. In the last two years, the Baltic states have had some of the highest gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates in all of Europe.
The Lithuanian Statistics Department announced in October that GDP in the third quarter of 2002 grew almost 7 percent. Latvia's GDP growth is also one of the highest in the EU at almost 8 percent. The situation is similar in Estonia, with 6.5 percent.
However, the per capita GDP in the Baltic states is less than half of the EU average. Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Commission, reports that Latvia's per capita GDP is among the lowest in Europe, with only Romania and Bulgaria having lower indices.
Bobo Lo is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He agrees with Kubilius that the Kaliningrad issue may pose a problem for Lithuania and says Vilnius should be more flexible in resolving the practical details of the EU-Russian agreement.
Lo cautions Baltic politicians not to overestimate their status, that is, not to forget that the driving force behind NATO and the EU's decisions to offer membership was the changing geopolitical situation in the world.
Lo says the Baltic states have been fortunate in that, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. firmly decided to promote democracy and stability in Europe. After Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, Baltic membership was the next logical step. Los says the same logic fits EU enlargement:
"It's not so much anything that they (the Baltic states) have done. It's not so much their achievement, although they worked hard and they have contributed to their own success, obviously. But the main variable, the main thing that has changed the situation has been this idea of promoting stability in Europe, following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union."
Aigars Freimanis, the director of the Latvias Fakti polling agency, says that what he fears most about membership in NATO and the EU is the ideological vacuum that will result. Since independence, he says political life has been dominated by the ideas of joining NATO and the EU: "The 'end of history' comes to our political life exactly at the moment when Latvia is invited to join the European Union or maybe after the moment when it becomes a full-fledged member of both NATO and the EU."
Freimanis says the citizens of the Baltic states are looking now for new ideological directions and that pessimism is widespread. He says ordinary citizens do not share the enthusiasm of the political elite for NATO and EU membership. People often complain about the difficulties of everyday life, he says, and say they do not want to be dragged into the European Union so shortly after escaping from the Soviet Union.
The Baltic states will conduct referendums on EU membership at various times next autumn. A poll conducted by the European Commission last summer shows that only 38 percent of Estonians, 46 percent of Latvians, and 55 percent of Lithuanians support joining the EU. In this respect, the Baltic states are not an exception. Support for membership is also low in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, where just over 40 percent of the public in each state are in favor of EU membership. By contrast, support is nearly 70 percent in Hungary.
Lauras Bielinis, an analyst in the Lithuanian Institute of International Relations, agrees that many people in the Baltics are pessimistic but says they should be more realistic:
"We need to compare the reality not with the ideal visions which many people have in their minds but with the situation from which we escaped and with the legacy we left behind. We should compare ourselves with our neighbors who in one way or another are moving in the other direction."
Bielinis says the best way for pessimists in the Baltic states to know how much their countries have achieved is to visit neighboring Belarus or Russia.