: Old Paradigms of Ethnicity and Post-Soviet Transition in the Baltic States

Sarunas Liekis

In contrast to the majority of the post-Soviet states, which have over the years sunk into (mainly consolidated) authoritarian regimes, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are nowadays considered consolidated democracies by many experts and specialized organizations (such as Freedom House or the Global Ranking Association). They have also been members of the European Union (EU) since 2004. To achieve this, the Baltic countries had to undergo both de-Sovietization and Europeanization together with the painful process of political and economic transition from totalitarian societies and centrally planned economies to democracies and modern market economies. Although the process of post-communist political and economic transformation only had a limited impact on minority policies and interethnic relations in the three Baltic countries, these have been the focus of constant criticism coming from the (less democratized) Russian Federation; they have also received considerable international attention on these matters.

S. Liekis (*)

Political Science and Diplomacy Faculty, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

Fish, Gill, Petrovic (eds.), A Quarter Century of Post-Communism Assessed, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-43437-7_9

Historically, the fate of the three Baltic countries substantially diverged from the thirteenth century onwards. At that time, only the Lithuanian tribes managed to consolidate their resources and establish their own feudal state. A very different fate befell their northern Latvian and Estonian neighbours, who fell prey to their militarily and technologically advanced neighbours from Scandinavia and the German fiefdoms. The predecessors of the modern nations of Estonia and Latvia were not part of the German ruling class, and most of the ancestors of present-day Lithuanians were not part of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth’s (1569-1795) own nobility. On the other hand, the elites of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Germanspeaking Livonian elites had nothing in common either. The distance between them was comparable to the distance existing between Russians and French elites in the eighteenth century (Liekis et al. 2008, 2009; Berenis 2008, p. 67; Potasenko 2009, pp. 275-299).

The Livonian Confederation, which included most of the territories that make up present-day Latvia and Estonia, was established in 1435, but it ceased to exist by the end of the sixteenth century. Its northern parts were ceded to Sweden and formed into the Duchy of Estonia, while its southern territories became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania - and thus eventually of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Russians took control ofall offormer Livonia and partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the historic partnership with the Habsburg Empire and Prussia of 1795, later marginalizing and pushing Sweden into neutrality. The incorporation of former Livonia into the Russian Empire and the ethnically Lithuanian part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania did not create a common identity between the peoples and its elites (Kasekamp 2010, pp. 1-251).

Modern Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian nationhood, which is based on linguistic nationalism, correlates with each state’s peasant origins and the eventual emancipation of this estate. Surfacing in the mid-nineteenth century, the new ethno-nationalist ideologies had pro-Russian as well as anti-Western tendencies and overtones from the very beginning. There were many similarities between the Estonian and Latvian ethno-nationalist movements, both of which contained a strong pro-Russian stance. Estonian and Latvian nationhood developed exclusively on the basis of social identity and opposed the dominant culture of the German elites. A kind of Russophilia looked to the Russian authorities and officialdom, yearning to finally be relieved of the oppression and exploitation of the German nobility. The leaders of the Latvian national awakening, Kritjanis Valdemars and Krisjanis Barons, and the first overtly nationalistic Latvian newspaper Peterburgas Avizes (the Saint Petersburg Newspaper), which began publication in 1862, openly expressed pro-Russian sentiments. In the case of the Estonians, the same sentiments were expressed by Johan Koler and Carl Robert Jakobson, the editor of Sakala from 1878. Anti-serfdom sentiments were strongly mixed with anti-German sentiments, based on the self-government traditions of the land-owning estates and German Baltic regionalism (Svabe 1991, p. 1; Pivoras 2000, p. 152; Kasekamp 2010, pp. 76-83).

The situation in Lithuania was substantially different. Although the population spoke different languages and there was an enormous social distance between the estates, the descendants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania behaved as one whole and there was no difference in geopolitical orientation between the nobility and the peasants. Later, Lithuanian nationalism, based on its peasant identity, developed in the second part of the nineteenth century. The 1897 Russian census in the territory of present-day Lithuania revealed that 59.5 % of inhabitants ethnically identified themselves as Lithuanian (Eberhardt 1997, p. 56).1

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ethno-nationalist movements paradoxically featured an overall geopolitical and civilizational orientation towards Russia. In opposition, the traditional elites identified themselves to a greater degree with the new Polish or German nations (Laurinavicius et al. 2005, p. 88).

The Lithuanian nationalist movement before the First World War did not avoid geopolitical gravitation towards Russia at the expense of its split with the Polish nationalist movement over social and linguistic issues. All three Baltic peoples finally became engulfed in confrontation with the people and cultures that had lived among them for centuries. The genesis of both the nationalist and socialist ideologies in the Baltics had demonstrated substantial dependency on Russia and witnessed a major role for it, while at the same time these movements were striving for emancipation from the German subculture (for Estonians and Latvians) and the Polish one (for Lithuanians, Laurinavicius et al. 2005, pp. 89-90). The Lithuanian ethnic revival accentuated the political nation at its initial stage, while their northern neighbours placed more focus on the change of social status of ethnic Latvians and Estonians. The first spokespersons of the Lithuanian national movement in the nineteenth century, Simonas Daukantas and Motiejus Valancius, foresaw that the Lithuanian nation and people were not different in terms of estate or social standing, as long as they upheld political values and maintained loyalty to the ethnic values of language and culture (Merkys 2006, pp. 35-40). However, the conservatism of the ruling elites, alienation and positivist tendencies in social surveys led very soon to ethnic categorization, which was reflected in statistics concerning social status. The ethnicities defined by the first census gatherers in the first part of the nineteenth century were usually ethno-social communities. Thus, social researchers and pollsters simply imposed their definitions.

The Baltic States in their present form became a reality after the major powers of Germany and Russia and the Western maritime powers (the United Kingdom, France and the United States) clashed in the region during the First World War. The consolidation of the Baltic ethnicities continued during the interwar years. All the elements of an ethnic confrontation with the minority ethnic groups living among the general population still prevailed. The confrontational nature of the interethnic relationship, combined with the rise of authoritarian regimes in these countries - Lithuania became authoritarian in 1926, and Latvia and Estonia did so in 1934 - did not encourage civic integration or the consolidation of political nations in the Baltic States. However, the negative implications of authoritarian rule were offset somewhat by non-violent forms of oppression, with there being a very small number of deaths among political opponents. For example, some authors have counted 13 attempts to overthrow Antanas Smetona’s (1874-1944) regime from the onset of the authoritarian regime in 1926 until the end of 1938. Despite this, a total of only 209 persons were tried, and 11 were executed by firing squad during the period ofhis dictatorship on politically related charges (Liekis 2010, p. 33).

Obviously - sociologically, culturally and even as civilizations - all three countries have many similarities. The interwar development helped to consolidate nationhood, although all three resorted to dictatorships when faced with civilizational and cultural challenges, which prevented civic consolidation and merely strengthened ethnic divisions, especially in Latvia and Lithuania. After the Soviet occupation in 1940, contrary to expectations, the Baltic countries and their elites internalized their Western civilizationalism. It was subordinated to the Soviet identity and geopolitically tuned against the Western powers.

Regaining independence in 1990 and 1991, the Baltic States, despite being integrated into NATO and the EU, continued to be volatile, relatively small and young states possessing a comparatively low degree of power; they were committed to their role of acting as a geopolitical barrier between the West and East as well as a connecting region for integrating both parts of the continent. However, this is just a superficial assessment. If thoroughly applied, a comparative historical analysis should demonstrate more differences than similarities.

The ethnic minority issue became instrumental in maintaining and assuring independence. The Baltic States were not bound by any substantial international agreement at the initial stage of their fight to become a part of the international community. However, these countries joined international organizations and their impact has been felt to varying degrees. Their ethnic makeup did not turn out to be an asset of diversity but rather a heavy liability, a sign of potential trouble in the future and a weakness at the time of the restitution of their independence.

Another significant aspect which is important for issues related to the Baltic States is the fate of democracy in heterogeneous societies. Ethnic differences in themselves do not diminish self-identification with a political community. Any democratic state may flourish with a very heterogeneous body of citizens. The work of scholars may encourage ethnicity to become the most important means of self-identification. Therefore, one type of ethnicity may be promoted and strengthened by state authorities in longterm policies, while another is seen as destined for eradication (Moreno Morales 2008, pp. 55-84).

The situation in the Baltic States after regaining independence in 1991 is a good example of this kind of self-strengthening identity scheme, which may be activated and made more visible in public discourse in opinion polls or population censuses. For instance, it is apparent that surveys hardly ask respondents to show whether one identifies with “Lithuania”, “Estonia” or “Latvia” in a political sense. Hence, there is no possibility of straying beyond the traditional ethnic makeup of the country. One must be an ethnic Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian in order to identify with the political project of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. For others (e.g. an ethnic Pole, Russian or Finn), there is no ideology of self-identification, only a “loyalty” to one’s country of citizenship. Multilayered identities, often centred around political identity, are as a rule excluded from data collection surveys in the Baltics. There is no universally valid remedy for multiethnic states for avoiding ethnic conflicts.

In times of transition, we are usually concerned with the relationship between ethnicity and a situation possibly becoming prone to conflict. There is a range of factors which influence ethnic conflicts, and we cannot predict when and under what circumstances ethnic conflicts emerge. The only productive strategy is to pursue policies which aim to help prevent ethnic conflicts. The policies of conflict avoidance have made the greatest impact on ethnic animosities and conflicts in the Baltic States, resting on the success of their post-communist transition.

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