Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the author’s trip to the Baltics. Today: the importance of the Baltics within the context of recent foreign affairs.
I must begin with our mode of transportation through the Baltics. Cruise ships are perhaps the most diverse ecosystems in the world: a captain from Italy, waitstaff from every third-world country and our cabin porter from tiny French Guiana in South America. The passengers are no less diverse, just older and better off economically. I enjoyed watching conservative Republicans from the United States sharing tables with families from Hong Kong, Egypt and Nigeria. Like Dorothy, they knew they were not in Kansas anymore. Multiculturalism is alive and well on the high seas.
I seemed to be among the few who felt comfortable raising political issues with fellow passengers within this confined environment. But what better opportunity to take the world’s temperature on Trump, Brexit, Paris yellow jackets, Putin and the demonstrations in Hong Kong?
On our last excursion in Denmark, a family from Hong Kong was afraid they would not be able to fly home because of the airport demonstrations. A couple from Paris described Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron as a robot, with no emotional affect. The English we spoke with all viewed Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the ticket to economic and political ruin. Everyone wanted to hear our impressions of President Trump and what the future holds for America.
We learned that every country in the Baltics has adopted some degree of cradle to grave benefits for its citizens, with high taxes to pay for these programs. Free health care, education, pensions and elder care are universal. From the many conversations I had with our excursion guides and with local citizens, democratic socialism is imbedded deep in the DNA of the Baltics as a model that guarantees the basic needs of all citizens. I heard many complaints concerning political leadership, but none concerning the democratic socialism economic model.
Next, we learned that favoring social programs for all citizens does not translate into favoring open borders or mass immigration. Almost everyone I spoke to in every Baltic country we visited wanted some form of limited/controlled immigration. It was not difficult to translate this widely held view into the rise of populist political leaders throughout the Baltic region.
The Baltics has its own unique history of multinational trade versus national interests that I found fascinating. The Hanseatic League was a powerful commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns, first formed in the late 1100s. The League came to dominate Baltic maritime trade for many centuries. Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and operated their own armies for mutual protection and aid.
On many of our excursions, we heard stories of local medieval citizens forced to choose between following orders from their king or from the transnational Hanseatic League. Making the wrong choice resulted in mass slaughter. Whole communities were burned to the ground. The power and influence of the Hanseatic League based solely on economic interest, with little religious or national affiliation, was greater than any multinational corporation or international trade pact that exists today.
Champions of the European Union have pointed to the Hanseatic League as a kind of prototype version of economic unification. All of the Baltic countries we visited belong to the EU. Unlike Great Britain, no one we spoke to seemed eager to exit the EU. The ease of travel and free trade with EU partners throughout Europe has served the Baltic region well.
On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that these countries would agree to expand the EU into a political alliance and to give up their ability to govern as independent nations. Patriotism is high in tiny Latvia with its two million citizens, Denmark with its 6 million, and Russia with a population of over 144 million. Each country has its own creation myths, national heroes and milestones that are honored with great pride.
One of the challenges across the Baltic and indeed throughout Europe is to recognize the importance of celebrating unique national identity, without permitting patriotism to morph into nativist, racist views. To illustrate this point, I will focus on tiny Estonia, population 1.3 million people.
As the fortunes of Estonia changed over the years of the modern era, one of its major streets was chronologically renamed: Lenin Street, Hitler Street, Stalin Street and now, Freedom Street. Young, urban Estonians are fiercely independent and want no further intervention into their affairs. But Estonia’s remarkable economic growth has remained in its capital, Tallinn, and poverty remains high in rural areas.
In July, the Conservative People’s Party won enough seats in the parliament to be included in the new government. The party’s leaders rally against migrants, same sex partnerships and the mainstream media. They claim to be the champions of rural Estonians and are often aligned with Russian policy positions.
Progressive Estonians have formed a coalition against the far right with a new movement: “Yes to Freedom, No to Lies.” They advocate not attacking the far right head on, but rather talking directly to citizens about “Estonian democratic values.” As in the United States and in all western democracies, the struggle to maintain liberal democratic principles is a real crisis. But for Estonians an illiberal outcome comes with immediate consequences. If democracy losses and Russia again dominates society, a major street in Tallinn will be renamed Putin Street.
For centuries, the Baltic region has been the buffer between Western Europe and Russia. Nothing has changed this reality. Under Putin, the Russian bear is again on the prowl, seeking to increase its sphere of influence and to tamp down domestic dissent. Americans should pay close attention to tiny Estonia, the canary in the coal mine.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.