Distancing from Russia – the cornerstone of the Baltic success story

  • 2024-06-24
  • Tonis Saarts

There have been many theories and explanations about what has made the Baltic States more successful than the other countries in the former USSR. Some have associated the Baltic success with the bold market reforms in the 1990s. Some refer to the geographical proximity to the West (and especially to the Nordic countries). Some highlight the cultural and civilizational component (even before the break-up of the USSR, those countries looked more “Western” than the other Soviet republics). 

Nonetheless, many of those explanations miss one very important point: In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the population and elites had a very clear intention and determination to distance themselves from Russia and the Soviet mentality since the 1990s. Regarding the other Soviet republics, it was never such a clear-cut case. Thus, the slogan, “distancing from Russia, away from the Soviet past!” became one of the major cornerstones of the Baltic success story, not only geography or neoliberal market reforms. 

What did it really mean to distance from Russia and the Soviet past? In the economy, it meant introducing transparent institutions, market-based transactions and a Western-style business culture. Briefly, breaking from the oligarch-dominated economic models and corruption which still flourished in most of the post-Soviet space. In politics, it meant avoiding an all-powerful presidency and denying authoritarian institutions and mentalities, which were replaced with checks and balances in the power architecture and the rule of law. In the administration, it meant purging the state apparatus of the former Soviet apparatchiks and introducing the Western-style (Weberian) bureaucratic ethos and organizational culture. At the societal level, it meant the intentional promotion of active democratic citizenship, nurturing civil society and freedom of speech and the clear disapproval of any kind of Soviet nostalgia and mentalities. 

Indeed, in the Baltic countries, the break from Russia and the Soviet past was much more clear-cut than in any other parts of the former USSR. Probably, it was the most evident in Estonia, in which Mart Laar’s government in the early 1990s actively purged the state administration of the Soviet time public servants, broke the economic ties with Russia and clearly orientated the country to the West. Nevertheless, even if the clear break from the Soviet (and post-Soviet) mentalities was less accentuated in Latvia and Lithuania than in Estonia in the 1990s, the prospects of accession to the EU quite quickly put all three Baltic countries on the same line.

Why did the Baltic states manage to distance themselves from Russia and the Soviet past, but for instance, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus could not? Here, a positive feedback mechanism comes into play among the other factors. The Baltic States experienced an economic recovery and upturn already in the 1990s, demonstrating to the elites and wider population that all those painful market reforms and aspirations to build democratic and Western-style institutions paid off. The EU accession, the subsequent economic boom, and the other very material and visible benefits of EU membership (money from structural funds, free movement, etc.) have further produced a positive feedback loop in which the allure of the “Russian world” has become weaker and weaker even among the younger generation of Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia. 

This is in sharp contrast with the experiences of most post-Soviet countries, in which many had not reached the same level of socio-economic development as by the end of the Soviet period, even after 30 years of the post-communist transition (or if they have, it happened much later than in the Baltic States). Briefly, in most of the former Soviet republics, there has never been a positive feedback mechanism, similar to that in the Baltic countries, that has shown that democratization and Westernization really work and bring prosperity not only to the elites but also to the common people. Therefore, it is no surprise that until recently, there has been a constant swinging between the Western- and Russian-orientated governments in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, etc.  

Probably, the war in Ukraine opens up a new window of opportunity not only for Ukraine but also for other post-Soviet countries aspiring to move to the West and away from the “Russian world”. If the West is not ready to support those countries enough in that critical moment, facilitating similar positive feedback loops as for the Baltics, it will end up with even grimmer consequences for the whole region. 

Tõnis Saarts is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Tallinn University (Estonia)