A new dynamism and unity is rolling across the previously divided region. But the birth of Homo Balticus is not without its problems, writes Gordon Sander
Some call it the new Baltic renaissance, or the resurgent Baltic Brotherhood. Others call it the new Hansa — a resurrection of the powerful league of Baltic city-states that revolutionised commerce during the medieval ages, and turned the storm-tossed East Sea, as it was then known, into the mainspring of continental trade.
Whatever you call it, there’s a buzz about the Baltic. What was until recently little more than a heavily polluted boy of water divided by a “Baltic Wall” has rapidly evolved into the most dynamic, politically unified region of Europe, and an area responsible for 15 per cent of the world’s trade.
The Economist magazine has called it “the biggest and most promising piece of the New Europe”.
Much of that Baltic buzz is lathered up by the many regional alliances and organisations that have sprouted up along the Baltic shores. It seems that the 80m or so people who live and work in the Baltic basin have a propensity for joining organisations.
Inevitably, these organisations often work at cross-purposes but somehow they get along. However, there is one transnational body causing controversy among the 10 nations of the pulsing Baltic region: Nato. Therein lies the biggest cloud overhanging Mare Balticum and the countries or regions that border it: southern Norway (even though Norway technically doesn’t front on the Baltic), Sweden, Finland, and the St Petersburg region of Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Russian Kaliningrad enclave, northern Poland, northern Germany and Denmark.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of how rapidly the Baltic shores are converging is the remarkable rapprochement between Finland and the country directly facing it 50 miles across the foam-whipped waves, Estonia.
The two contiguous countries share strong historic, cultural and linguistic ties. However, for the half century after the second world war — when formerly free Estonia became the Estonian SSR, while Finland kept its independence and its capitalistic way of life — the Finnish and Estonian peoples were estranged.
Until a decade ago, tourism and cultural exchanges between the two nations was minimal and closely monitored. Now, Finland and Estonia are each other’s biggest trading partners and tourism between them has grown dramatically.
In 1989, before the break-up of the Soviet Union, about 200,000 Finns and Estonians were allowed to visit each other. By last year, that number had soared to almost 3m.
“A rainbow of relationships has formed between our two countries and the number of bands in that rainbow is steadily increasing,” said an Estonian diplomat in Helsinki.
Brotherly Finns are also helping to train the Estonian military and police forces, supplying funds and expertise for the clean-up of the Soviet-abused Estonian environment — including the Baltic itself — and training Tallinn’s tiny bureaucracy for its future duties as a member of the European Union.
There is even a brave new Finnish-Estonian Symphony Orchestra to set the new marriage to music.
The Finnish-Estonian reconciliation has, in turn, inspired the other richer Nordic nations to “adopt”, invest in, and bond with their neighbours to the eat. Much as Finland has “adopted” Estonia, so Sweden has done with Latvia, and Norway and Denmark with Lithuania.
Increasingly, Germany and the Nordic countries are viewing the lower Baltic region as part of their home market — as well as a bridge to the larger Russian market.
Perhaps the most concrete manifestation of the Baltic renaissance is an actual bridge: the huge, recently completed Danish-Swedish Oresund Bridge that links the Scandinavian land mass with the European continent for the first time, creating a new metropolitan region of 3m people around Copenhagen and Malmö, and a trade and marketing centre as large as that of Amsterdam, Berlin or Zurich.
So today, there is, arguably, a greater convergence of peoples, cultures and economies around the Baltic than at any times since the medieval Hanse trading league ruled the Baltic waves — which explains the vogue of the so-called “New Hansa” concept as a rationale for the new Baltic synergy.
The Hanse was founded during the late 12th century by Lübeck-based Saxon merchants who wished to protect and store the valuable cargoes they shipped back and forth across the East Sea.
Subsequently, the Hanse merchants established commercial enclaves along the Baltic and beyond, both in established cities such as London (where the Hanse had offices at the Steel Yard), and Copenhagen, and in young coastal habitations such as Rostock, Riga and Tallinn, which became city states.
The Hanse members and outposts, which ultimately numbered more than 160, were linked by a sophisticated commercial network that included a uniform type of boat (the cog), advanced navigational aids and occasional diets to discuss interleague problems.
From the 13th century until well into the 16th, this huge protective association dominated Baltic trade. Ultimately, the Hanse was eclipsed by the better organised and armed Dutch, but not before creating the foundation for a region-wide identity, and myth, which has continued into the present day.
Today, along the German Baltic coast, where the Hanse originated, the name is a virtual mantra. In Rostock — which calls itself the Hanseatic City of Rostock — I counted a Hansa bank, a Hansa amusement park and a Hansa soccer team.
Yrjo Kaukiainen, who teaches maritime history at Helsinki University, thinks there is a tendency to idealise the original Hansa. “When you take away the trimmings — the Hanseatic houses, the diets — what Hanse was really about was making money, which is fine, but to speak of a higher Hanseatic ethos is going a bit too far.
“The Hanse could be quite an aggressive organisation and was perfectly willing to engage in boycotts, embargoes, even outright war to accomplish its ends,” he said.
Perhaps the most visionary (or the most deluded) of the new Baltic leagues is the Union of Baltic Cities, which has 92 members ranging from little Ventspils (Latvia) and Panevezys (Lithuania) to mighty Stockholm and St Petersburg.
Among other things, this energetic voluntary association has enunciated a new enlightened creed of Man: the Baltic Man. According to UCB brochure, Homo Balticus is hard-working, neighbourly, nature-conscious and aesthetically sensitive. He also likes to talk.
One of the more interesting and worthwhile UBC services is the bulletin published by its Rostock-based Commission on Health and Social Affairs, which allows poorer members to advertise their sometimes desperate material needs.
In a recent issue Narva, Estonia, appealed for incubators and computers; Kaunas, Lithuania, sought furniture and washing machines; and Kaliningrad pleaded for disposable syringes, disinfectants, knitting machines, and food.
“The members are responding,” said Karin Wohlgemuth, the bulletin’s editor, who is also Rostock’s head of foreign relations. “I believe in Homo Balticus,” she continued, as she stood in the rain, near the town’s old Hanseatic harbour.
“I feel a kinship with Finns and Estonians. We know each other. And now we need each other.”
Alas, all this goodwill notwithstanding, Homo Balticus still has considerable woes. One of them, the spread of organised crime, is a direct consequence of the fall of the Baltic Wall.
“Opening the borders between Finland and Estonia has been a mixed blessing for us,” said Antti Turkama, top officer of Helsinki’s National Bureau of Investigation. “Ten years ago Holland was the principal source of drugs imported into this country. Now, I am sad to report, it’s Estonia.”
Another serious problem for the Nordic countries is th increase in the smuggling of illegal immigrants across the reopened Baltic.
Another impediment to true Baltic harmony is the varying speeds at which Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are being taken into the EU. Estonia, deemed by Brussels to be the fittest of the three, was invited on to the fast track to EU membership three years ago. Latvia and Lithuania were finally given the go-ahead at the December EU summit in Helsinki, but hard feelings remain.
One could argue that, at least in the short run, both EU and European monetary union, about which the Baltic Ten also differ, have brought as much turmoil to the Baltic region as brotherly love.
Then there is the matter of the Baltic itself, which, despite a vast amount of transnational environmental aid from green-minded Germany and the Nordic countries, remains grossly polluted. The Swedish government already advises pregnant women and children not to eat fish caught in the Baltic.
The principal culprit, by common agreement, is Russia which still flushes vast amounts of untreated sewage into the sea at St Petersburg and Kaliningrad.
“We understand the problem,” said a Russian diplomat in Helsinki. “And we are glad that [other nations] are willing to work with us on it. But we are doing our best.”
The Russian was also pleased to point out that St Petersburg had recently hosted the 10th Annual Hansa Business Days, which drew high-level delegations from all around the Baltic. “We are all for the New Hansa,” he said. “And despite what many people think, we are for the EU, too. Anything that brings business to Russia is good.”
However, the Russian’s smile disappeared when the troublesome matter of Nato expansion into the Baltic was raised. Germany, Norway and Denmark are, of course, full members of the western security alliance, while Finland and Sweden, with significant defence forces of their own, have chosen to remain discreetly out.
But Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania consider nato membership intrinsic to being accepted back into the western family of nations. They emphatically want in — to the manifest distress of Moscow, which continues, rightly or wrongly, to perceive Nato as an anti-Russian military alliance.
“We are adamantly opposed to these countries joining Nato,” the Russian said. “There is a broad consensus among the Russian people about this matter.”
Something about the prospect of the three Baltic republics joining Nato clearly makes the Russian bear livid. As Kremlinogist George Kennan pointed out in a recent interview with The New York Review of Books, the republics “were part of Russia longer than they were part of anything else” (Kennan is opposed to Nato enlargement).
Moscow’s vehement opposition to Nato expansion was re-emphasised in a gravely worded, anti-Nato, anti-western “security concept” it published recently.
That has not, however, changed minds in Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius, where the predominant attitude remains Nato or bust.
Russia is also put out by the second-class treatment it feels is being accorded the large Russian-speaking populations of Estonia and Latvia, a matter of which greatly vexed Boris Yeltsin.
Clearly, the potential for a future Russo-Baltic conflict is there, which is why some pessimists predict that the present era of baltic goodwill will prove about as brief as the last one, which ended in 1939, when Stalin’s armies came storming across the Finnish-Russo border, and, a year later, occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Homo Balticus, staring hopefully into the Baltic mist, believes otherwise.