The regeneration of Europe’s Baltic states
October 10, 2012
VICTORIA, BC, Oct. 10, 12/ Troy Media/ – My wife and I recently returned from a fascinating Baltic expedition arranged through the Washington-based Smithsonian Institute in cooperation with the National Geographic Society.
The trip began in St. Petersburg, Russia, where our group spent two fascinating hours with former President Mikhail Gorbachev, the man whose negotiations with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan ended what he termed the ‘insane cold war nuclear weapons race’ and who’s ‘Glasnost’ policy unleashed the pent-up yearnings for freedom that ultimately led to the breakaway of countries locked in Stalinist Russia’s grip for half a century.
Gorbachev chillingly described just how close the world came to nuclear Armageddon: ‘less than 10 per cent of our nuclear arsenal could have ended all life on earth at the push of a button’. He recounted that the American penchant for always needing to be seen as the ‘winner’ almost collapsed support among his Kremlin colleagues.
This reminded me of the business principle that, in any negotiation, you need to give your counterpart some wins. Tellingly, Gorbachev studiously avoided venturing an opinion of life under the Putin regime.
Other Russians we spoke with weren’t so reticent. Struggling shopkeepers and restaurant owners complained of being forced to pay police for ‘security’ and everyday working Russians painted a depressing picture of corruption and crony capitalism that has fostered cynicism and shattered hopes that freedom would bring Western style prosperity.
Perhaps it’s this sense of hopelessness and disappointment that has fueled such self-destructive behaviour as consuming astonishing quantities of Vodka, dropping male life expectancy to 60 years. Combined with collapsing birth rates, this portends demographic doom for the nation that once dominated almost half of the world.
Leaving Russia, we boarded the ‘National Geographic Explorer’ expedition ship bound for the former Soviet-controlled Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The 20th century story of these three small states is tragically similar.
After declaring independence in 1918 and fighting off invading Russian Bolsheviks, they enjoyed a rare 22 years of freedom, which was ended by the Red Army occupation of 1940. The Russians were driven out a year later by Hitler’s forces.
Hopes of a return to independence following WWII were cruelly crushed as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe.
Thus began a long period of ‘Russianization’. Senior business, community and military persons were either executed or shipped to Siberian gulags. Large numbers of Russians were transplanted and given the best jobs. Secret police networks monitored compliance of locals and those suspected of adverse thought or action disappeared behind the foreboding steel doors of KGB headquarters.
Almost half a century passed before the nightmare ended. In 1989, over a million people demanding independence joined hands in a 600 km human chain crossing all three countries. And it was Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy that gave them the courage to defy the iron hand of Soviet troops.
The economic progress that these long oppressed people have made in just 22 years is astounding. Our first stop was the beautiful Estonian capital of Tallin, where a perfectly preserved 12th century town sits on a hill overlooking a thriving modern city.
A surprising number of high end vehicles transit new highways and first rate public transit serves urbanites. Depressing Stalinist apartments and public buildings are now outnumbered by attractive new structures.
Next we sailed to the city of Riga, Latvia, filled with an amazing array of Art Noveau buildings in its magnificently restored city centre. As in Estonia, the transformative economic progress in such a short time was startling.
Moving on to the southern-most Baltic republic of Lithuania we found significant, but slower, economic progress, probably because so many former citizens were either eliminated or escaped during Russian occupation. One local stated ‘There are no old families here.’ Combined with Russian immigration, this has reduced ethnic Lithuanians to less than half of the population.
And while Russian immigrants to Estonia and Latvia have generally integrated harmoniously, Lithuania’s Russians continue to hold anniversary celebrations of Russian rule, fueling an ethnic divide similar to that now plaguing Ukraine.
All of this raises perplexing questions. Why has moving from Socialism to Capitalism proven so disappointing for Russians, and so successful for Estonia and Latvia? How can it be these long traumatised people could lift themselves up and make so much impressive progress in such a short time? The answers to these questions will be the subject of my next column.
Gwyn Morgan is a Canadian business leader and director of two global corporations.
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