The Baltics: Europeysky, Not Sovetsky

The three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—share a history of having forcibly been made part of the Soviet Union in 1940. They were the first among the 15 Soviet republics to proclaim their independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1990, and they gained it the following year. Since then, they have eagerly sought integration into European political and economic structures. In 2004 they were admitted into both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Thus they are culturally, economically, and politically now part of (Western) Europe. They have never joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and are now routinely included in European regional texts. Nevertheless, there are reasons why they merit at least a mention in this textbook.

First of all, for better or for worse, these three countries were part of the U.S.S.R. for half a century. The imprint of this period is still visible in their landscapes. There are, for example, remnants of large Soviet enterprises left, including a nuclear station in Lithuania and oil shale factories in Estonia. Another example is the housing: In many places the same old Soviet apartments are still inhabited, with largely unchanged designs. Moreover, many of the people who are now in control in the Baltic states were born and raised during Soviet times and share a collective memory of this period. Surprisingly to Western observers, some Soviet traditions stubbornly persist.

The Baltic states also lead the EU in some negative social statistics related to the Soviet past. For example, abortion rates in all three are much higher than is common in Western or Central Europe. On the positive side, the Baltic states have retained some of the social benefits of the Soviet period under different political and economic realities.

Second, long before the Soviet Union existed, the Baltic countries were involved with the Russian Empire—sometimes fighting against it, sometimes collaborating with it, and sometimes part of it. Surrounded by historically powerful Sweden, Germany, Poland, and Russia, they had to be politically aligned with one or two of these great powers over much of their history. Thus the presence of Polish, German, Swedish, and Russian cultural elements today is a unifying pattern in all three states.

Third, the Baltic republics still have large Russian-speaking minorities, ranging from 6% in Lithuania to 35% in Latvia. Russian language and culture remain integral aspects of their society, to an extent unknown in the rest of Europe. Fourth, and significantly, these countries continue to engage with Russia on a deeper economic level than most other European economies because of their close geographic proximity, joint borders, and common trade.

The Baltic states are very small in both territory and population. Estonia has merely 1.3 million people, and the biggest, Lithuania, has only 3.4 million—smaller than most American states. In area, Latvia and Lithuania are about the size of West Virginia (or Sri Lanka), while Estonia is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined (or Denmark). All have rapidly declining populations, with rates of decline comparable to Russia's—about –0.6% per year in Estonia and Latvia, and –0.25% in Lithuania.

Physical Geography

In terms of physical environment, all three countries are coastal lowlands, covered by thick glacial landforms from the last Ice Age (which ended about 12,000 years ago). Sand dunes are prominent along the Baltic Sea coast. Estonia controls two large islands in the Baltic Sea, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Glacial lakes, marshes, and scattered forests create a picturesque mosaic of habitats farther inland. Lake Peipus (Chudskoe) is shared by Estonia and Russia. This was the site of the famous battle between the Russians under Prince Alexander Nevsky and the Teutonic Livonian knights, who were defeated on the ice of the lake in 1242. Estonia's highest point is only 300 m above sea level. The Baltic climate is maritime—cool and wet. The average temperature in Tallinn in January is –5?C, slightly below freezing. It is about +17?C in July. Inland Vilnius is slightly warmer. One can swim in the Baltic Sea in July, but even then the water is rarely warmer than +17?C.

Soils are mainly podzolic and are moderately productive. Mixed forests of pine, spruce, aspen, birch, maple, basswood, and oak are common. All three countries are net timber exporters. They also have important fisheries in the Baltic Sea. There are few mineral deposits, except construction stone, oil shales (only in Estonia), and amber (principally in Lithuania). Each country has a few national parks open to the public. The parks have human settlements within their borders. There are some excellent areas for migratory bird watching on the Baltic Coast, especially on the Curonian Spit shared by Kaliningrad Oblast and Lithuania.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, the Estonians are of Finnish–Ugric (Uralic) extraction, while the Latvians and Lithuanians are Baltic peoples, closely related to the Slavs. With respect to religion, Estonians and Latvians were historically Lutherans, having been influenced by the Germans and the Swedes, whereas Lithuanians were traditionally Roman Catholics. Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity, toward the end of the 14th century. Because of a close political alliance with Poland over much of its medieval history, the country has become heavily Roman Catholic. Lithuania also has a higher proportion of churchgoers than more secularized Estonia or Latvia.


Estonia has the most open and wealthiest economy of the three Baltic states. By 2007 it was already at Portugal's level of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, and ahead of Slovakia or Hungary. Latvia and Lithuania are trailing somewhat behind, but are still ahead of Russia, the wealthiest economy of the CIS, by about 20%. Estonia also leads the other two countries in the percentage of Internet users and mobile phone users per capita. Its economy is the most export oriented of the three as well, with exports accounting for about half of the GDP, and it attracts 42% of all foreign direct investments in the Baltics. Estonia's main industries are electronic equipment manufacturing, wood processing, oil shale energy production, telecommunications (call centers and cell phone parts manufacturing), textiles, shoemaking, and tourism. Furniture, prefabricated parts for log cabins, and wooden toys are some of its important exports.

The most important cultural and economic centers in each republic are their capitals, which are also the biggest cities: Tallinn (population 420,000), Riga (820,000), and Vilnius (580,000). Riga is the most industrialized of the three, while Tallinn is arguably the most picturesque, with its charming medieval German old town and Toompea Castle in the middle. All three attract foreign tourists, especially from Europe (Germany, Sweden, and Finland) and Russia. Other cities in Estonia include the university town of Tartu, located deep inland in the southeast; a fishing port, P?rnu, in the southwest; and an industrial city, Narva, on the border with Russia. Although Finland is the largest trade partner of Estonia, Russia and Latvia are also in the top five. Latvia and Lithuania, for example, receive Estonian food products (processed food and drinks), various chemical products, metals (especially Latvia), machinery and equipment, clothes (Lithuania), and electricity (Latvia).

Latvia and Lithuania have generally similar profiles, with Lithuania being the most industryheavy (about one-third of its GDP, as opposed to only 20% for the other two). Lithuania and Estonia are electricity exporters, while Latvia has to buy electricity from the other two or from Russia. Agriculture continues to play an important role in all three countries. Dairy farming and diversified cold-climate grain and vegetable production are economically important products as well as culturally traditional. Strong family farms were not fully destroyed even by the years of Communism here and are now very productive, although less so than in the Western European countries with similar climate (Denmark and Germany).

Latvia's GDP is at about the level of Poland's. Its economy was particularly hard hit by the recession of 2008–2009 because of a large external debt exposure: The GDP plunged over 5% in 2008 and 20% in 2009. Latvia has some advantages over Estonia in the long run, however. It has a bigger population and a larger land base. Moreover, Latvia had a well-developed manufacturing economy during the Soviet period; for example, RAF minivans, suburban electric trains, and radio sets were made here for the entire U.S.S.R. Like Estonia, Latvia has a thriving fishing fleet. It also has two major export-oriented seaports at Liepaja and Daugavpils, which handle transshipments of wood, fertilizer, and petroleum products from Russia and Belarus. Latvia has a slightly warmer climate than Estonia and more productive soils, both of which encourage farming (about one-third of the country is arable, as compared to only 16% in Estonia). Dairy farming and food processing are very important. Latvian smoked sardines (sprats) and chocolate candy are well-known delicacies sold all over the world. Latvia also has a well-developed tourism infrastructure focused on the sea beaches (Yurmala) and diverse food industry. Riga is the most cosmopolitan city in the Baltic states, and the Russian language is still very common there.

Its magnificent Dom Cathedral was the largest medieval church built in the Baltics. It also has a well-preserved castle (built in 1330), which is now the official residence of the president and also houses a few museums. Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic states by population, has the most farmland (45%), and is about as wealthy as Latvia. Besides Vilnius—which, unlike Riga and Tallinn, is an inland capital—Kaunas is a big historical city and the ancient capital. Before World War II, Vilnius was home to almost 500,000 Jews and a substantial number of Poles. Most of the Jewish population perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Some of the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust in Lithuania were the Lithuanian nationalists, who were more supportive of Hitler than of Stalin. Lithuania continues to expect war reparations from Russia (it asked for $20 billion in 2004), to compensate for the damage done by the Soviet Union during the war. Not surprisingly, such requests meet with an icy-cold reception in Moscow.

As noted earlier, Lithuania has a larger share of industry in its economy than Estonia and Latvia do, although many factories are still the old Soviet-period ones and are only slowly being upgraded. It is also the only Baltic state to have a Soviet-built nuclear power station, which produces 1,300 megawatts (MW) of electricity at Ignalina. The EU would like to see it decommissioned and replaced with renewable energy sources, but in this age of skyrocketing energy costs, such a decision requires careful deliberation. Lithuania exports some of its surplus electricity to Latvia. Important industries in Lithuania include wood processing, food processing, furniture making, and machine tool manufacturing, as well as production of TVs, refrigerators, small ships, and textiles. Its main seaport, Klaipeda, is an important trading post on the Baltic Sea. Amber jewelry and wooden toys are the local folk crafts. Tourism is also well developed, especially sea-based tourism in Palanga on the coast, and historical tourism in Kaunas and Vilnius.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Baltics

The future of the Baltic region is largely in the EU's hands. NATO continues to play a big role as well. All three countries have contributed a few soldiers and some technical support to the American-led coalition forces in Iraq, with tiny Estonia sending 40 troops, and Latvia and Lithuania a little over 100 each. The three countries form a strong pro-American bloc in the current EU, consistently voting for decisions that are in the best interests of the United States. However, because they have very small populations and so are represented by only a few votes in the European Parliament, they cannot exert much influence over European politics. Also, practical matters demand more focus on local and regional than on global affairs. Estonia, for example, trades much more with Russia than it does with the United States, and Russian tourists are more common in Tallinn than American visitors are (although German and Finnish tourists are even more common).

At the same time, all three countries have unresolved issues with their big eastern neighbor. Both Latvia and Estonia have unsettled disputes with Russia along their eastern borders. Meanwhile, Russia demands better treatment of the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia, who are marginalized by the nationalistic governments of those countries. In recent elections in both states, pro-Russian parties enjoyed strong support among voters. Riga's current city council chairman, elected in 2009, is a Russian national advocating closer ties with Russia. Moscow also pushes for recognition of the role played by Baltic ultranationalists in the genocide of the Soviet Jews during World War II, as well as for protection of the Soviet war monuments and graves in the Baltic states. Lithuania enjoys the friendliest relations with Russia, probably because it has the smallest Russian-speaking minority and so has fewer issues to worry about. Also, it shares a border with Russia only in Kaliningrad Oblast. In general, however, relations between Russia and the Baltic states could be much improved. New generations of leaders in all four countries will have to seek improved cooperation and collaboration as a top priority.


  1. Use available economic and social data to compare and contrast Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with each other and with the following European countries: Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Portugal, and Belarus. Present your findings in class (this can be done as a group exercise, with each group picking one of the Baltic countries to focus on).
  2. Evaluate tourism options available to you that would include any one of the Baltic countries as a destination.
  3. Have an in-class debate about the merits of a recent proposal by the U.S. government to locate antimissile radar installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Have a team representing the Baltic states, a team representing Russia, and a team representing the U.S./NATO experts.
  4. Use U.S. international trade information (available from to find out what items are imported to the United States from the Baltic states, and what items are exported from the United States there.
  5. Prepare a report about any one of the national parks in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.