Old headlines encapsulate timeless lessons

  • 2006-03-22
  • By Gary Peach

What was unfathomable 10 years ago is quickly reduced to yesterday's news... Perhaps this is the essence of what it means to live in Eastern Europe.

Reading from an archive is a lot like flipping through old photo albums. You're guaranteed some good laughs, if not a dose of humility as well. We chuckle and think to ourselves, "Jeez, did I really wear my hair that way?" or, "I must have been at the Salvation Army when I bought that outfit."

Thumb through some back issues of any newspaper, and you're likely to find similar entertainment. While preparing for our "tin anniversary," we perused binders full of old issues and couldn't help giggling at the some of our lead stories. "Baltics brace for Russian refugees" shouts an article just weeks after Russia's financial crisis of August 1998. "Adamkus spits fire" declares the front page of an April 1999 issue (we know the Lithuanian president is tough, but not that he doubled as a dragon in "Lord of the Rings"). Here's one from November 1996 that floored us: "Baltic PMs declare war on money laundering." Yeah, right…
No less peculiar are the headlines that never go away. They're the ready-to-use, recyclable types that we can pluck out of the archive and use again and again (which we occasionally do when we go over deadline): "Estonia and Russia debate border" (Dec. 1996); "Population decline spells disaster for Estonia" (August 1998); "New corruption charges blast Skele"(Feb. 1999); and the most trustworthy or all, "Russia directs another verbal barrage" (Dec. 1996).

Every so often we ended up being closer than we could've imagined. Take the "Russian refugee" example just mentioned. In early 1999, residents of Ivangorod, a Russian city across the river from Narva, wrote a collective appeal to President Boris Yeltsin asking permission to secede from the Russian Federation and join tiny Estonia. Who can blame them? Narva residents, mainly Russians, were at least receiving their pensions and unemployment compensation, while Ivangorod's Russians were getting stiffed by Moscow and were forced to live off their suburban vegetable patches. (In fact, in March 1998 Estonia paid $250,000 in Ivangorod's overdue water bills to Narva.)

So maybe the correct title in August 1998 should have been: "Baltics brace for Russian regions."
Hindsight is foolproof. Up against old headlines, we are all so much wiser, and calmer. Old emotions seem exaggerated, if not frivolous. Take this headline from September 1998: "Landsbergis sends wake-up call to West." The current MEP is quoted in the article as saying, "At the beginning of 1999, five years will have passed since Lithuania handed in an official document asking to be accepted into NATO. What kind of office is it that fails to reply to an essential document for five years?"
You can empathize with the man's frustration. Yet at the same time you want to say, "Hey, Mr. Landsbergis, take it easy! Everything's going to turn out fine. In five more years, you'll be in like flint, and before you know it, NATO jet fighters will be burning rubber at the airbase in Zokniai."

Silly though this knee-jerk reaction may seem, it provides an interesting prism through which we can glimpse events of the future. Look at it this way: How would your typical Georgian respond right now if a time traveler from 2018 arrived to inform that the Caucasian country would, by that year, be a full member of both the European Union and NATO?
The answer: the same way an ordinary Balt would have in 1992 if a traveler from 2004 had suddenly materialized carrying the same information: "You're nuts."

It is not coincidental that we keep mentioning NATO and the EU. For if there has been a leitmotif connecting the past 500 issues of The Baltic Times, it has to be NATO, EU and Russia (and not necessarily in that order). Nor should this surprise any of our readers. The struggles between East and West, between past and future, have never subsided in the Baltic states, and we don't expect they ever will.

The two alliances also reflect what we learned while doing our archival homework in preparation for this issue: What was unfathomable 10 years ago is quickly reduced to yesterday's news.
Perhaps this, then, is the essence of what it means to live in Eastern Europe 's the idea that, in an environment of rapid change, time moves relentlessly and transforms the realm of the possible.
Regardless, the future holds in store some wonderful headlines. Looking into our secret crystal ball (we keep it in the storage room along with the old Apple Macintoshes the staff used in March 1996), we can see a few no-brainers that will no doubt splash the newsprint one day soon: "Lithuanians toss the litas and embrace the euro"; "Baltic states join the Schengen zone"; and "Latvia scraps Integration Ministry, number of noncitizens less than 10 percent."

A few headlines are less lucid, perhaps due to sheer distance on the timeline, but they flicker through the haze inside our crystal ball: "Estonia overtakes Spain to become 14th wealthiest EU member"; "U.S. scraps visa requirement for Balts," or perhaps, "Vike-Freiberga elected new general secretary of the United Nations." And we can't forget the one that constantly eludes us: "Russia apologizes for deportations, occupation."

Finally, there are those headlines from the realm of fantasy that, while dubious, are fun to ponder: "Lithuanian duo wins Eurovision song contest;" "Estonians learn to talk fast"; or "Castro dies 's winter-weary Balts plan to colonize sunny Cuba." Then there's our personal favorite: "Swiss court convicts Lembergs for massive fraud, Latvia to extradite immediately."
Don't be too quick to laugh. Ten years is a long time, and you can never tell what's going to happen.