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Looking back on the 'Year of Invitations'

  • 2002-12-19
  • Steven C. Johnson
RIGA

For the Baltic states, palindromic 2002 will be forever remembered as the Year of the Invitations.

The most optimistic Balts never doubted that they would one day see their countries join the European Union and NATO. But few expected it all to happen so quickly.

Five years ago, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were almost invariably grouped by outsiders under the dusty old heading "Former Soviet Union." Today, even Russia's Foreign Ministry treats them, perhaps grudgingly, as part of Europe.

Though always on the lips of a few hardened "cold warriors" and Baltic émigré lobbying groups, Baltic membership in NATO was viewed by many in the West as suicide, an inevitable prelude to nuclear war.

"Taking office in 1996, I fought to make the EU our priority because getting into NATO was completely hopeless," said Toomas Ilves, a former Estonian foreign minister. "There was no reason to keep knocking our heads against a brick wall."

The Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and the sudden geopolitical shift it affected throughout the world were largely responsible for the change of heart in Washington, Europe, and Moscow, which finally realized that in a world threatened by global terrorism, its border with NATO-backed Baltic states would be the least of its worries.

Still, winning NATO invitations was no less momentous. Besides plugging them into a stable security arrangement, it also boosted the Baltics' self-esteem by giving them a solid push out of the Soviet-era shadow.

Last week's deal to join the EU in 2004 may prove even more important, and voters will be asked in the year ahead to endorse membership in crucial referendums.

As they fire up campaigns to promote the "yes" vote, Baltic leaders will work to highlight the gains of joining the bloc, among them the promise of increased investment and trade, chances to work and study abroad and billions in structural funds of the sort that helped turn Ireland into one of the EU's most dynamic economies.

Estonia has seen more than 5 billion euros of EU assistance since 1991, and more will be available after it joins in 2004. The EU has already invested hundreds of millions euros in keeping Lithuania's Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear power plant safe and will spend some 300 million euros more to shut it down by 2009.

There will be casualties. Small farmers who receive far smaller subsidies than those in existing member states will probably be unable to compete.

But many Balts feel this will help them make the necessary shift to new employment sources. Estonia has already gone some length to developing a vibrant information technology sector.

Joining the European club should also keep up the pressure on governments to clean up corruption. Voters in Latvia this year were concerned enough about the stories of graft, procurement scandals and bribe-taking to turn out two-thirds of the Parliament in a general election.

Prime Minister Einars Repse's new government says it intends to root out widespread corruption in the police and judiciary and tackle the problem of prisons packed with pretrial detainees, some of whom have spent more than a year in miserable conditions awaiting trial.

"This government has its work cut out for it every day of its existence," said Pauls Raudseps, an editor at Diena, Latvia's largest daily.

The two foreign policy victories also won't change the need for Latvia to integrate its Russian-speaking minority, many of whom remain non-citizens. The government has established a new Social Integration Ministry but is looking increasingly reluctant to fund it.

"Every time the government has softened language laws or changed election laws it's happened after intense outside pressure was applied," said Alex Krasnitsky, an editor at the Russian-language Chas.

With NATO and EU membership assured, he says some worry that the state will have less incentive to promote integration.

But perhaps the most memorable moment of 2002 was the Baltic conquest of the much-maligned but heavily-watched Eurovision Song Contest.

With Estonia hosting the gala and Latvia winning the title, the contest perhaps did more to put the Baltics on the map than NATO and the EU combined, especially among young Europeans.

Sadly, Lithuania won't be able to continue the Baltic winning streak; a poor performance last year means they won't be in the lineup in next year's contest in Riga.

But high-brow Lithuanian artists and musicians might consider that a victory, too.