Why Baltics should take in refugees

  • 2015-09-23
  • Will Mawhood, RIGA

The growing refugee crisis in Europe has done something that I hadn’t thought was possible: replace tensions with Russia as the main topic of discussion in the Baltic media and on the Baltic streets. The numbers to be settled in the Baltic States have fluctuated as the crisis has developed, but seem to have been finalised for the moment at 1,107 in Lithuania, 776 in Latvia and 373 in Estonia. 

The governing parties of all three nations have accepted these numbers, although nationalist parties in all have voiced strong opposition – at the time of writing, Latvia was the only country in the European Union not to have formally accepted the number assigned to them; the largest governing party, Unity, being locked in a dispute with its coalition partners which oppose taking in the additional refugees. 

Among other things, this crisis has exposed some strikingly unpleasant attitudes, including a worrying level of prejudice among certain elements of the political classes. The former Foreign Minister of Estonia, Kristiina Ojuland, declared in a strange, rambling Facebook post that “as a white person, I feel the white race is threatened today!” The mayor of Birzai in Lithuania reportedly stated that he would rather be raped than allow migrants into his city. This has been matched by the comments seen on social media from many ordinary people, who have expressed fears over terrorism, scepticism over the authenticity of refugees’ claims to be fleeing war, as well as outright racism and xenophobia. All of this has all been ugly to see and at times has displayed a frightening level of ignorance.

Admittedly, the governments of the Baltic States are probably correct in expressing their opposition to the quota system currently being pushed by EU leaders – while this is an understandable response to the situation, it would lock countries into a series of percentage-based obligations and penalties, which is particularly inappropriate in a long-term sense for the poorer, eastern section of the union. Eastern Europe’s capacity is a great deal lower than Western Europe’s, not just economically but socially. This is for a number of reasons: these are nations without any recent history of significant immigration; comparatively run-down or underfunded infrastructure; and a far greater sensitivity to questions of national identity, resulting from a much more extensive recent history of foreign oppression. 

The rhetoric from certain Western European politicians has also indicated an ignorance of quite what a big deal this is for post-Communist countries. Moreover, for the Baltic States at least, quota numbers have appeared at points to have been the result of calculations done on the back of an envelope, rather than based on a deep knowledge of these countries’ economic and social capacities. This was especially the case for the first set of figures, which assigned the largest number to Estonia, despite its population being significantly lower than Latvia or Lithuania. The way of dealing with this crisis, which is impossible to assess in terms of size and duration, is unlikely to be as simple as allocating percentages. This will have to be dealt with responsibly on a case-by-case basis, which will require a great deal of maturity, cooperation and mutual understanding from leaders of all European countries. The scenes from Hungary have been shameful, but have also demonstrated the reaction that can sometimes take place when there is an unpredictable influx of people of a radically different culture into an essentially monocultural country. This is not to say Hungary should not play its part in solving this European issue, but if the inhabitants perceive that the government has lost control over numbers settling there, as could be the case if the quota system is enforced, there is the risk it will lurch in an even more extreme direction, perhaps bringing the far-right Jobbik party to power. The same is true, although to a less dramatic extent, of many other countries to the east of Germany. Simply hectoring these countries will merely create bad feeling and resentment; persuasion and reassurance will work better than threats. 

However, it is crucial that the current proposed numbers – and perhaps a good deal more in future years – are voluntarily accepted by the Baltic countries, and moreover that refugees are welcomed, not only for moral reasons, but for the long-term interests of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It’s true that the Baltic States have particular reason to be wary of large-scale immigration, because of their memories of the Soviet occupation, when hundreds of thousands of workers emigrated from other republics, primarily Russia. At that time, little attention was paid to promoting knowledge of the local languages and culture among the newcomers, leading to lasting acrimony between the communities, and fears, in Estonia and Latvia at least, of permanent Russification and the eventual disappearance of any cultural distinction. Concerns raised about threats to Baltic identity seem to be rooted in these traumatic experiences.   

It’s important to emphasise, however, how different the situation that faces us now is. First, at present at least, the initial numbers are a great deal smaller – during the Soviet period, the Russian-speaking population was increasing by a rate of around 100,000 every decade in Latvia; 50,000 in Estonia; and 30,000 in Lithuania; by contrast, in none of the Baltic countries would the proposed refugee intake make up more than 0.05% of the population, or five out of every thousand. This may need to increase in future, but we cannot cross that bridge until we come to it. Secondly, and importantly, without a large number of compatriots to join, refugees will be a great deal more motivated to learn Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian – simply because to do most things they want to do, they will have to speak the state language. This would certainly not have been true of, say, a Belarusian electrician or an Armenian factory worker moving to the Baltics in the 1970s. Thirdly, if handled correctly, there should be a degree of gratitude to the nation and eagerness to integrate on the part of many migrants – after all, the alternative for a great number of them would have been death. 

A great deal of the discussion about the prospective intake of migrants has focused on the possible negative consequences of a more multicultural region, but it should be emphasised that immigration also brings significant benefits – including in economic terms. Almost all available data on this question has concluded that the presence of recent immigrants boosts a country’s economy – a recent University College London study found that non-EU immigrants to the UK had contributed over £5bn to the economy over the previous decade, at the same time as the contribution of native-born Brits was actually negative. And why would anyone be surprised by this? 

Those people who have managed to escape war, famine or other disasters, overcoming dangerous obstacles on their way, are likely to be among the most motivated and resourceful – exactly the kind of people likely to succeed economically in their adopted country, and do difficult, unpleasant jobs if need be. Many European countries have declining populations, and the trend is particularly steep in the Baltic countries, principally due to low birth rates and young people migrating to Western Europe for economic reasons. The World Bank projects that, by 2050, Estonia’s population will be 1,150,000, Latvia’s 1,640,000, Lithuania’s 2,514,000, in all cases a sharp drop from the current number; people over 65 will comprise over a fifth in each. To avoid severe demographic unbalancing and consequent economic and social problems, the inhabitants of the Baltic countries must do at least one of three things: have more children, stop emigrating to wealthier nations or allow in more immigrants. Strenuous government efforts to promote the first two options have had only limited success – only one option remains, voluntary acceptance of significant numbers of migrants. 

If the carrot doesn’t work, here’s the stick. The European Union is a union; any union comes with a mix of benefits and responsibilities. If the Baltic countries participate in dealing with a Europe-wide crisis half-heartedly or not at all, it will greatly reduce the likelihood that Western Europe will lend a hand when they need it. Anne Applebaum, an American historian who has dedicated her career to the study of Eastern Europe, put it well in a tweet recently: “East Europeans uninterested in helping solve refugee crisis should prepare for rest of EU to lose interest in them and their problems too”. 

Absolutely. What if, God forbid, something should happen with Russia? There is a huge overlap between EU and NATO members. A weak, squabbling Europe divided by grudges and resentment is exactly what Putin wants. What if inability to resettle migrants effectively results in the end of the Schengen Zone? As small countries reliant on outside investment and limited border formalities that would affect the Baltics especially seriously. Ditto any interference with the freedom of movement enshrined in EU law or reduction in the structural funds which the eastern members are reliant on. Perception is important in international relations. So far, Europe has been mostly sympathetic to the situation of the Baltics with relation to Russia. A few stupid decisions could easily change that. Hungary has already seriously tarnished its international reputation by its reportedly brutal treatment of migrants and Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s irresponsible conflation of Europe with Christianity. The Baltics need not do the same – this is the perfect opportunity to show once and for all that these are modern, welcoming, European countries, at ease with what that means. 

The idea that these newcomers will be a threat to the Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian identity is also something I have little time for. Aside from, as mentioned, the relative insignificance of the numbers, I also don’t recognise this idea of Baltic culture as an infinitely fragile thing that must be protected from the rest of the world lest it collapse. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have had a tough history; that much is obvious. But, look at it another way – despite Germanification, Russification, Polonisation; despite the deportations, Stalin, the Soviet Union; despite serfdom, the szlachta, the German barons; the Great Northern War, the wars of independence, the Second World War; the people have survived, retained their languages, remained distinct from their larger neighbours and from each other. I hardly think that the presence of a few hundred – or few thousand – Syrians are going to change this. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire, speaking Lithuanian in public or printing books in the language was prohibited; if this is now to be a language that refugees learn, not just a language of refugees, that seems to me to be evidence that the country has taken a step forward.

The idea that multiculturalism never works is almost conventional wisdom here, but is based, it seems to me, on a very partial view of the situation in Western Europe, highlighting only the most plainly disastrous examples while ignoring the many, many cases where people basically rub along. In Western Europe, France is probably the nation with the most fraught relationship with its ethnic minorities; it’s also the one that has been most rigidly assimilationist in its attitude towards immigrants. Multiculturalism can be handled badly or handled well – and for an example of the second, incidentally, look at the first Estonian republic, which granted cultural autonomy to its national minorities to a degree unprecedented in Europe at the time (see here for a letter of gratitude to the republic from the Jewish National Foundation). The disaster that subsequently befell Estonia certainly had nothing to do with multiculturalism. 

Right now, the idea of a Syrian or Eritrean Latvian may perhaps seem a strange one, but I doubt this will still be the case in 20 years. If the Baltic countries define themselves purely in terms of ancestry, then the most likely future for them is gradual stagnation and weakening. If one can become Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian by loving and respecting the country, and attempting to some extent to integrate, then the countries can both remain vibrant and forward-looking and retain their distinct characteristics and traditions. Accordingly, migrants, when they do arrive, must be given the benefit of the doubt, at least for some time. Of course they must obey local laws, must learn the language, must respect local conventions, but this must be matched by a tolerance and understanding on the part of natives. It must be understood that learning the languages is not easy and will take time, integration is not an immediate matter, suitable jobs may be tricky to find; there will, of course, be occasional bad experiences, but Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania must not succumb to judgement by anecdote. 

Since the quota system appears dead in the water, the Baltic States must show a willingness to accept as many refugees as their societies can handle at the moment. A welcoming approach will pay off for the Baltics in the long term, economically, socially, politically and morally. During my travels I’ve experienced the kindness and generosity of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians many times. If Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia can now find it in themselves to extend this attitude to the newcomers, they will not only become broader, more welcoming and more diverse countries, but also stronger ones.