Europe On the Edge Again
Rahvusvahelised uudised 19 Oct 2015  EWR
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Could the Baltic states‘ stance on Russia be adopted by the EU after testing times?

Martin Ehl, Transitions Online,14 October 2015
The security situation in the Baltics, a cause for NATO concern for the last year and half, has been overshadowed lately by dramatic events around Syria and the influx of refugees into Central Europe.

But while Eastern Ukraine increasingly resembles the Moldovan or Transnistrian type of frozen conflict, allies continue their activity on the eastern border of NATO and the EU.

Russia, probably as a gesture ahead of President Vladimir Putin's visit to the United Nations, recently freed the kidnapped and jailed Estonian security agent Eston Kohver. Besides the still-strong wave of general Russian propaganda, there is no great, pressing issue. Yet the situation remains far from calm.

“We would need the strengthened presence of NATO for a long time, even we don‘t see that Russia, under the cover of the Syrian conflict, would like to act militarily in the Baltics,” Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics told me in Prague recently.

Latvia is preparing to enforce border protection policies, not only because of any possible Russian provocation, but also because of the growing number of refugees trying to enter the Schengen zone via Belarus or Russia. Just last week, Latvian authorities detained a group of 28 Iraqis – the biggest group of foreign refugees ever detained in the country.

“Our planned fence and other border measures have a broader geopolitical context,” Rinkevics said, defending his country’s actions after accusations of raising the “new Iron Curtain” in Eastern Europe.

The Baltic countries, which are discussing the immigration issue just as much as their Central European counterparts, have historical experience with a migrant labor force from Soviet times. The result of this is a large Russian-speaking minority in Riga today. Meanwhile, Latvia is still in an unfavorable demographic situation, with a declining birth rate and massive emigration in times of financial crisis since 2009.

So the policy challenge for Baltic countries is quite complex: to ensure security and independence in the long term; persuade allies in NATO that a strong presence will be needed on the ground for a long time; and encourage locals to have more children – and to stay at home, while having open borders in the EU, and when the economic revival is slower than hoped.

According to Rinkevics, the biggest issue isn’t even the physical fences or walls being built all around the region. It’s the danger of “mental walls” springing up between Europeans.

These walls have been appearing due to both the Russian, and more acutely, immigrant crises, which have been dividing politicians from former post-communist EU countries and their Western and Southern European counterparts, seeing them trade verbal blows in strong disagreement over how both issues should be handled.

“Such mental walls are much harder to erase, while a physical fence you can tear down in one day,” said Rinkevics.

And he’s right. The pan-European discussion of the migrant issue, which once again – after the eurozone crisis – exposed the weak points of the common Europe project, has shown how different the historical and cultural experiences of individual nations really are.

One of the Soviet goals was to suppress the small proud nation of Latvia, which survived for centuries partly thanks to its caution against anything foreign. Now, 70 percent of Latvians are against accepting refugees – even including the generation which were actually refugees themselves, fleeing the Soviet army and Soviet persecutions after 1945.

Europe was caught off-guard by Russian actions in 2014, and again by the refugee influx in 2015. While we can argue about a lack of strategic thinking which could anticipate such events, we have seen responses that have been slow and inefficient. And both crises have shown that Europe must either become more united, or find itself at breaking point, on the journey back to quarreling nation states.

Baltic nations desperately join every international organization in order to cut themselves off from the Russian sphere of influence, because of their past experience. In the years before Russian aggression in Ukraine, they warned Western partners but were seen as Rusophobic.

Now, after the last two years, Baltic policies and behavior could instead be seen as an indication of how any future European common foreign and security policy should look. That is, if something like that is to come as a result of the crises.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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