In July 2019, two Baltic states got their new Presidents. The economist Gitanas Nauseda took office in Lithuania and the lawyer Egils Levits was inaugurated in Latvia...

Alexey Filippov, political psychologist, expert Center for Social, Economic and Geopolitical Studie exclusively for IAC

In July 2019, two Baltic states got their new Presidents. The economist Gitanas Nauseda took office in Lithuania and the lawyer Egils Levits was inaugurated in Latvia. These politicians replaced former presidents, who pursued a tough stance towards Russia and are characterized by more moderate views. In April 2019, Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia, another Baltic country, made a working visit to Moscow (rather unexpectedly), where she met with Vladimir Putin. Can Baltic-Russian relations be “reset”? Most experts consider this unlikely, given the strong anti-Russian sentiment in the Baltic states and the EU’s collective standing towards Russia. However, general tension can be reduced and the development of dialogue is possible in certain areas of cooperation.

Stumbling block

In the last decade, relations between the Baltic countries and Russia were cold and tense. Many politicians from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia voiced harsh criticism of the Russian authorities, even more frequently after the Crimean crisis. In response, the Russian MFA accused them of Russophobic rhetoric and of using confrontation with Moscow to score political points in their country. Among the most noticeable critics of the Russian government, not only in the Baltic States, but in the EU as well, was Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who called Russia a “terrorist state” and openly spoke about the possibility of a Russia’s military invasion of Lithuanian territory.

In recent years, Russia’s actions in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine made the key targets for harsh rhetoric of Baltic politicians. But the first symptoms of deteriorating relations between the countries appeared as early as in the mid-2000s, when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined NATO and the EU. This step gave a clear message that the countries had ultimately chosen their course for rapprochement with the West. This process triggered Russia’s foreign policy revision, with view of the expanded NATO scope up to the RF national borders, as well as the rethinking of their Soviet past by the Baltic States. One of the most controversial and painful moments of this past is their accession to the USSR. Throughout the last decade, the Baltic leaders took it as the cornerstone of not only the anti-Soviet and anti-Russian rhetoric but also of their entire policy. These causes can be understood if we address the events of 80 years ago.

Long-awaited accession or illegal occupation?

With the outbreak of World War II and the invasion of Poland by the Third Reich in September 1939, the USSR was faced with the urgent need to protect its eastern borders. The Soviet leadership treated a number of military incidents in the Baltic as a pretext for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to sign Mutual Assistance Treaties, which allowed the deployment of Soviet troops (20,000-25,000) on their territory. With the outbreak of war, the Baltic republics wished to remain neutral, but were trapped in the division of spheres of influence between the two powers.

In the following months, the USSR got more suspicions that anti-Soviet activities were conducted in the Baltic countries and that the terms of Mutual Assistance Agreements were not implemented. In June 1940, the government of the USSR forwarded ultimatums to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; these countries were required to form national governments capable of enforcing the treaties, as well as allowing additional Soviet troops on their territory. Regarding ultimatums, no consensus was reached in the leadership of the republics, but despite certain attempts to resist, these conditions were finally accepted. The newly formed governments were loyal to the USSR and held parliamentary elections, where only pro-communist blocs were eligible. The government of the USSR (and subsequently – the RF) insisted on recognizing that the Soviets’ arrival to the Baltic republics had been given broad public support and all procedures had been implemented in accordance with international law, while Western states regard the election results as falsified and the USSR actions in the Baltic countries as illegal annexation.

When independence was restored in 1990, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia declared the decisions of their parliaments of 1940 invalid, the subsequent fifty-year period – the Soviet occupation, and headed for rapprochement with the West. Under these conditions, public confrontation with Russia and its representation as the USSR successor proved to be a fruitful strategy for uniting the electorate, which felt the triumph of freedom and anticipated prosperity in the new European space, as well as for seeking trust in the EU and NATO leaders.

“Our country cannot be prosperous because of Russia’s neighborhood”

In 2005, Latvia started calculating its losses incurred by the “Soviet occupation”. This work was completed only 11 years later and the responsible commission announced the total of 185 billion euros. In 2007, Estonian government decided to dismantle the Soviet Soldier monument in the center of Tallinn. This decision sparked mass riots, which Russia was accused of. In June 2008, Lithuania imposed criminal penalties on a public display of Soviet symbols and two months later, leaders of the Baltic countries and Poland issued a joint declaration which qualified Russia’s actions in Georgia as aggression.

In 2009, Dalia Grybauskaite, Leningrad State University alumnus and former CPSU member, became the President of Lithuania. While she initially advocated improving relations with Russia, already in 2010 she accused Vladimir Putin of the ultimatum-like communication, and in 2013 decided to boycott the Olympic Games in Sochi explaining it by human rights violations in Russia and its attitude towards foreign partners. After re-election for the second term in 2014, Gribauskaite compared Putin to Hitler and Stalin, called dependence on Russian gas an “existential threat” to Lithuania, and facilitated NATO’s permanent deployment on the country’s territory. In 2017, Ms Gribauskaite said at the UN General Assembly that scenarios of attacks on neighboring countries had been trained at Zapad (West) 2017 Russia-Belarus joint military exercise, and in December 2018, Lithuania was the first to impose sanctions against Russia after the Kerch Strait incident.

Grybauskaite’s northern colleagues “in the first presidential term” were far more reserved. In 2010, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers warmly met with Dmitry Medvedev and convened a large meeting for business circles of the two countries in St. Petersburg. A few years later, his successor Andris Berzins stated tension at the political level, which, in his opinion, “is not perceived at the human level”. Latvia’s official rhetoric tightened after the 2015 elections: the new President Raimonds Vejonis argued that Europe needs the “scare away” measures for Russia so that it doesn’t attack one of the European countries one day”. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics compared Russia with the Third Reich, while billboards with his image and the caption “In spite of Kremlin, Latvia is and will remain an enduring state” were seen in Riga.

Up to date, the urgent problem of the so-called non-citizens, Russian-speaking minorities that had not received national passports since state independence in 1990, is yet unresolved both in Latvia and Estonia. This and other moments remain stumbling blocks in Estonia-Russia relations, supporting anti-Russian sentiments in the republic. After the scandal with arresting Estonian policeman in October 2014, accused by Moscow of espionage, the media voiced the idea of possible Russia’s annexation of mostly Russian-speaking Narva (though the idea was called “stupid” by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves). The 25-year-long work on the border treaty, which has already been signed twice and was one step away from ratification, is not yet completed, as the atmosphere of bilateral relations, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, remains “inappropriate”. In February 2016, President Ilves announced that his country could not become prosperous because of its neighborhood with Russia.

Thus, after the events of 1940 and a 50-year long period within the USSR, the Baltic republics gained independence and guided their foreign policy towards the West, using the events of 80 years ago as a basis for keeping anti-Russian rhetoric, quite popular among the population and bringing them trust of the EU NATO and the USA leadership. The leaders of the young European republics did everything to demonstrate their loyalty to the European Union, sometimes even against their economic interests, as exemplified by the case of the Ignalina NPP in Lithuania. Lithuania agreed to close the plant as part of its accession agreement to the EU, which caused an increase in electricity prices and the country’s dependence on the external energy supplies, with billions of euros required for its total decommissioning. However, the countries got extensive financial and military aid from Brussels in return. But how reasonable is clinging to this course in the future?

New faces

On May 26, 2019, Gitanas Nauseda, a non-systemic, self-nominated candidate with minor experience in politics, won the presidential election in Lithuania. For the past ten years, Mr Nauseda worked as chief economist at the Swedish bank SEB and before that he served as economic adviser under President Valdas Adamkus. Gitanas Nauseda won in the second round, topping by 33% the conservative candidate, former Minister of Finance Ingrida Šimonytė. Political scientists explained his victory by the voters’ fatigue with systemic politicians and a request for a new face, “a professional person, but unprofessional politician”.

His rhetoric towards Russia is fundamentally different from that of Vilnius through the last decade. Nauseda said that in relation to Moscow he “would like to be diplomatic and use a slightly different vocabulary than the one practiced so far”. He emphasized that relations between Russia and Lithuania would not change until the situation in Ukraine improved, but noted that relations with Russians should now be Lithuania’s top priority, because “we will have to live with these people when the term of office of the current Kremlin leaders expires”. The new president proposes not to abandon the principles, but alongside with this to try building a dialogue with Moscow, probably from the grassroots political level, starting with economic and cultural cooperation”.

Nauseda’s counterpart, the new President of Latvia Egils Levits issues more reserved statements. Mr Levits is an acknowledged lawyer, supporter of European values and uniting the nation on the basis of the Latvian language, who is against Victory Day celebration. He intends to build relations with Russia relying on the good neighborliness principles and international norms, which, according to him, “Russia violates in Ukraine and Georgia”. He considers that Latvia’s foreign policy should be built in full coordination with the EU line, since the republic’s position will be stronger this way. In this regard, it can be rephrased by the earlier quote of former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: “the road to Moscow goes via Brussels”.

Levits’s cautious position can be explained not only by his personal views, but also by the general anti-Russian environment in the Baltic countries, sustained by some politicians. If the presidents have a real desire to build a constructive dialogue with Moscow and this is not just the rhetoric of politicians taking new office, what and who can provide the effect?

Old legacy

The day before the inauguration, Gitanas Nauseda introduced members of his team. Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, a diplomat, former vice minister in MFA and ambassador to France and the UK, will lead the foreign policy group. Ms Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene keeps to the current line of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry: proclivity for the US and the West along with criticism of the Soviet past. Linas Linkevičius, who took office of Minister of Foreign Affairs 7 years ago and was top lieutenant of President Grybauskaite in disseminating anti-Russian sentiments, retained his position. In June, it became known that Linkevičius appointed (out of public view) Gribauskaite’s people to key diplomatic missions of Lithuania. Hence, the most important positions in the foreign policy system were given to those who had led a tough anti-Russian course throughout recent years and even more, those well familiar to each other, which even the President cannot boast of. Even in case he takes to establish diplomatic contact with Moscow, Nauseda can face resistance from the long shaped foreign policy apparatus.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics holds office even longer, from 2011, and unlike his Lithuanian counterpart, he got remembered for his scorching anti-Russian statements. In January 2019, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, citizen of Latvia and the US, assumed office of Prime Minister. While sticking to the characteristic political rhetoric (in particular, Kariņš has recently condemned restoring Russia’s voting rights in PACE), the PM’s vital objective is to earn the trust of the US, which demands Latvia to introduce amendments in the financial system to combat money laundering. The influential Latvian Sejm (Saeima, the parliament) led by Inara Murniece is also critical of Russia.

Apart from internal factors, we should consider that in foreign policy, presidents will first and foremost strive for gaining the trust of the EU, NATO and the US leadership, rather than Russia. Under these conditions, there is no reason to discuss the prospects of instant warming of Baltic-Russian relations. However, there still exist rather important factors to change the general rhetoric and to activate at least part of the previously frozen areas of cooperation.

Moment of choice

The anti-Russian sentiments of the Baltic elites largely result from the activities of the respective republican administrations. The current Baltic leaders are faced with the choice, either to support these sentiments or to go against the system, to some extent, and offer their own, more restrained and productive option of interaction with Moscow. Today, the current alignment of forces and a number of precedents make this choice feasible.

The current political situation gives Gitanas Nauseda a good chance to build favorable relations with the cabinet and the Sejm. He has already nominated Saulius Skvernelis, an influential politician supported by parliament, as the Prime Minister. Saulius Skvernelis had tensions with the previous President Grybauskaite throughout the entire period of his service and he will use the opened opportunity to establish a positive cooperation with the presidential administration. This provides Nauseda with a powerful tool to convey his agenda to the elites.

Within the society, there are also premises for warming Lithuanian-Russian relations. According to the public opinion poll conducted in May by Spinter tyrimai (Spinter research, market and public opinion research company), 65% of Lithuanians were in favor of a meeting between their new President and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As regards Latvia, the Latvia-Russia Intergovernmental Commission for Economic, Scientific and Technical, Humanitarian and Cultural Cooperation resumed its work in 2017, after a four-year break, and is still operating actively. Despite the general bilateral tension, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics noted the upward trend in turnover in 2019 and wished to develop economic ties with Russia.

The 2019 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum held a round table discussion “Russia –Baltic States: Pathways to Trust and a Beneficial Partnership”. Taavi Aas, Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure, met with Yevgeny Dietrich, Russian Minister of Transport, on the forum sidelines and they jointly agreed to continue the work of the two countries’ transport committee, aiming to resume the transit of Russian goods via Estonia. Transit suspension incurred billion-level losses for the republic’s economy.

In April 2019, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, on her own initiative, provoking criticism from a number of Baltic politicians. The topics of discussion included prospects for the development of bilateral relations in trade, economic and humanitarian spheres. Ms Kaljulaid, the same as Latvian President Egils Levits, proceeds from the need to build foreign policy based on the common EU position, but she also shares Nauseda’s position: despite political discordances, it is necessary to find common interest in economic and other areas, and gradually develop a dialogue.

The pragmatic and largely de-ideologized position assumed by Gitanas Nauseda and Kersti Kaljulaid may appeal to Vladimir Putin, whose personal attitude can largely determine the future of the dialogue between countries. Constructive criticism instead of an emotionally charged accusation, emphasis on the need to normalize economic ties – these features of current Baltic presidents were absent in the former leaders, which prevented them from building a trust-based dialogue with Putin.

Despite the uneasy domestic political environment, current presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have a historical chance at least to boost the bilateral dialogue and steady increase in turnover, if not to “break the ice” in relations with Russia. The new leaders, Gitanas Nauseda and Egils Levits, face a choice, either to accept the rules of the game already established in the republican elites or try to establish their own rules. Today, Gitanas Nauseda seems to be more inclined to the second option, as compared to Egils Levits, and their choice will determine relations between the Baltic countries and Russia in the coming years.