Tue, Aug 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Baltic states in an identity crisis

They may have exchanged the Soviet Union for entry to the EU, but Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are still struggling to remain independent

By John Burke  /  THE OBSERVER , RIGA, LATVIA

The folk museums and song festivals of the three Baltic states are all in the open air as vital reminders -- for children and tourists alike -- of hard-won national identities so distinct from the Russian culture next door.

Yet the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is under threat once more and not just because they have exchanged the Soviet Union for the EU. What this has led to, however, is the free movement of capital and labor, encouraging emigration from the Baltic states as well as penetration of their economies by Nordic and Polish firms.

This started way back in the Communist era with a ferry from Helsinki to the Estonian capital Tallinn: now those two cities' stock-exchanges have merged. Finland's leading department store, Stockmann, now has a branch in both Tallinn and Riga, capital of Latvia. In Latvia and Lithuania, drinks companies have been taken over by Danish breweries like Carlsberg. Nokia has become the leading mobile phone in the Baltics.

Foreign-owned

More than half of the 7 million people in the three republics bank with Hansa of Sweden while Nordic insurers have been pipped only in Lithuania by PZU, a Polish group which is also the owner of the oil refinery that serves all the states. The biggest hotels in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, Lithuania -- all former Intourist showpieces -- are now owned by a Norwegian group, while various Scandinavian carriers dominate regional aviation.

This opening-up has also led to thousands of Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians flying out to jobs in the West. Ireland has opened diplomatic posts in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, to deter job-seekers, since there are already 30,000 people from the three republics in Dublin alone.

Emigration, albeit enforced, is nothing new to the Baltic peoples, the first wave being westward to avoid Tsarist oppression more than a century ago. Then, World War II resulted in half a million of them being deported to Siberia where most died. However, after the war, 30,000 Estonians, 135,000 Latvians and many more Lithuanians escaped through Sweden or Germany where there are still large Baltic communities.

Since the collapse of communism, another 300,000 have freely emigrated from Lithuania alone, while Latvia's figure may also be around a tenth of the population. Estonia is officially owning up to only 8,000 leavers.

Only a few of these were Russians returning to the motherland -- or elsewhere.

Yevgenia Gehsbarga, an office-worker in Riga, complained, "Discrimination drove my grandmother to Chicago."

The 6,000 Latvians there are probably outnumbered by migrants from Lithuania but there are now 100,000 Latvians scattered across the US.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told me: "Many did go to North America in the nineties, but Latvians now prefer the EU. Some bring new skills home, but we have no program to woo emigrants back."

Paradoxically, this former lecturer at McGill University grew up in Montreal after her parents escaped in 1940.

That was nine years before those of Arturas Paulauskas made it to Chicago, from which he returned to become Lithuania's parliamentary speaker. Both are untainted by a Soviet past, as is Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who has relatives in California.

There are Baltic communities in Sydney and Melbourne too, but Australians who have returned to their parents' homeland include Brigita Stroda at Inspiration Riga, the Nordic-backed convention bureau, and Ray Vysniauskas who edits Lithuania Today. The paper recently interviewed Feriandas and Inga Greblikas, both doctors, who migrated to Toronto in disgust at the lack of real democracy, warning that depopulation would leave only pensioners governed by relics of the Soviet era.

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