Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Eastern enthusiasm

A visit to Lithuania this week showed me how history and geography make such a difference to attitudes toward the EU.

Lithuania is a land in between. Part of the Soviet Union until just two decades ago, it today finds itself sandwiched between two dangerous and unpredictable neighbours. It’s not a very comfortable geography, to say the least.

To its East lies the pariah state of Belarus - Europe’s last dictatorship and, one might also say, Europe’s last Russian satellite state. To its West lies the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad - a barren, unforgiving place that few dare enter, repopulated by Russians in 1949 after its German inhabitants were killed or expelled.

But to its North and South lie fellow countries of the European Union – Latvia and Poland. The 103km border between Poland and Lithuania therefore forms a perilous land bridge between unfriendly Russian talons. Since2009 the two countries have been part of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area, giving the border additional importance as the only way to get to the Baltic and Finnic countries to the North without a visa.

But despite this pivotal importance, this narrow passageway faces a dearth of infrastructure connections. As I write this I am on a plane flying back from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, where I spent the last two days at a conference devoted to this lack of connection.

Kaliningrad, Lithuania and Belarus were until 1990 just three different regions within the same country. Because of this, infrastructure (roads, pipelines, electricity and telecommunications) flowed through the three but stopped at the border with Poland. Poland, in turn, did not devote many infrastructure resources to its undeveloped Northeast. The result is that though Lithuania declared independence from Russia in 1990, its energy didn’t. The country is dependent on Russia to power the country with electricity and it remains an ‘energy island’ completely disconnected from the European electricity and gas grid.

Poland and Lithuania have a joint project to build an ‘energy bridge’ between the two, but it has been ten years in discussion and is progressing only slowly. But the EU is working to make this a reality through its ‘Connecting Europe Facility’, providing funds to build power lines and roads between the two. But though it may seem like it would be easy enough to do, the reality has proved surprisingly complicated. For now Lithuania, along with the other two former Soviet Baltic States (Latvia and Estonia) remains largely isolated from the rest of the EU.

Inland empire

It’s an odd reality for Lithuania to find itself in, considering its history. The country is historically much more closely connected to Poland than it is to Latvia or Estonia. The two were combined in a dual monarchy for 400 years until 1795. It is for this reason that Lithuanians are Catholic and Latvians are Lutheran.

In fact Lithuania was traditionally not referred to as a “Baltic State” until after World War II, when it was incorporated into the USSR as one of the three ‘Baltic soviets’ while Poland remained a technically independent country.

Before the war the ‘Baltic states’ were generally understood to mean Latvia, Estonia and Finland – the three areas which had been under Swedish control for centuries but were lost to Russia in the 18th century.

Historically Lithuania had little to do with its three Northern neighbours. It has never been focused on the Baltic Sea and in fact its coastline today at just 108km long, is the longest its ever been in history. While the Baltic coast was conquered by the German Teutonic Knights in the 13th century (who set up the German states of Prussia in what is now Kaliningrad and Livonia in what is now Latvia/Estonia), the Lithuanians resisted the knights and built a strong Grand Duchy in the interior.

Though they were linked by language to the Latvians, they had little to do with them because the Latvians were under Teutonic rule. Because they could not hope to defeat the Germans, the Lithuanians instead expanded southward, taking advantage of the power vacuum created in former Kieven Rus by the retreating Mongols. Eventually the Lithuanians created a state that extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and this was enlarged even more when they combined with Poland, creating the largest European state of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Vilnius was the capital of this enormous state, and you can see it in the architecture. While the coastal towns of Riga and Tallinn are clearly former peripheral Germanic trading posts, Vilnius is oriented as the centre of an empire. The remains of the Grand Duke’s palace are situated on a hill looming above the city. The streets in the remarkably well-preserved old town are lined with regal, imposing buildings. During its height this was a vibrant, multicultural city, called the “Jerusalem of the North” partly because of its 30% Jewish population. People spoke a mixture of Polish, Lithuanian, Ruthenian (Ukranian) and Yiddish.

European future

Of course, this heyday was a long time ago. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth grew weak and it was steadily divided between its powerful neighbours Russia, Prussia and Austria until by 1795 nothing remained. Vilnius fell into decline under the Russians. The city became part of the newly created Polish Republic in between the two world wars, since a majority of its residents at that time spoke Polish (which had become the more fashionable language of the commonwealth elites).

Though the city’s architecture escaped significant destruction during and after the war, its population did not. Almost all of the Jewish inhabitants were exterminated by the Nazis. The Polish population was forcibly relocated to the new Polish state, which had been shifted by the Soviets to the West and therefore no longer included Vilnius. Lithuanians who resisted the Soviet occupation were killed or exiled to Siberia. Intellectuals and politicians fled if they could.

Visiting Lithuania today you see the legacy of all of this: the restored old town architecture of the city’s glory days contrasting with the garish, crumbling Communist architecture, which in turn gives way to shiny new developments. I visited one area to the North of the river which was once filled with Soviet tower blocks, but has now been redeveloped with shopping malls and shimmering glass skyscrapers. The largest of these malls, ‘Europa’ was so named because it was inaugurated in 2004, the year of Lithuania’s EU accession. Naturally, partly with EU funds.

Lithuania currently holds the rotating EU presidency, and signs of this fact are everywhere. The presidential palace is emblazoned with a light projection of the EU flags, and the EU insignia is all over town. I even saw the familiar yellow stars with a blue background covering the entrance to one of the grand shopping malls, for no discernible reason.

To many Lithuanians, this is what the EU represents. It’s not just shopping malls and new consumer opportunities (although this is a big part). It’s also hope for the future. It’s the prospect of a secure connection to the country’s EU neighbours and an end to dependence on Russia, something these countries could likely not achieve on their own.

Life isn’t a paradise in Lithuania today. But few would disagree that it is a world better than 15 years ago. But it is still hard for Lithuanians to feel secure. Older people remember another short-lived period when the country escaped from Russia, during the country’s brief independence between 1918 and 1940. They know that all this could go away in an instant – they’ve seen it before.

This is why I felt a real enthusiasm for the European Union while visiting the last few days, and not just at the conference but also amongst regular people I met out at bars Sunday night. It is an enthusiasm I am not used to encountering these days in Western Europe and even, dare I say it, in Brussels.

I’ve now visited all the Eastern European member states except Latvia and Romania. In my travels I’ve encountered a very different attitude toward the EU than I encounter in the West. In the East, the EU represents for many a hope for the future. A hope that things can get better, a hope that goals can be accomplished through new possibilities. And, perhaps most importantly, that a strong EU will mean these countries will never again find themselves under the Russian yolk.

The one exception to this I’ve encountered has been in the Czech Republic, where people remain persistently Eurosceptic. But even there I encounter few people who would seriously suggest they should leave. The notorious Czech penchant for nihilism may forbid them from getting too enthusiastic about the project, but in the end they know there is little alternative.

I was in London visiting during the UK EU presidency in 2005 and lived in Paris during the French presidency of 2008. In both, I got the impression most people weren’t even aware the presidency was happening. The Eiffel Tower may have been emblazoned with an impressive display of enormous EU stars, but when I asked Parisians about it I found out some didn’t even know why those stars were there.

For Western Europeans, the EU can mean something very different than it does in the East. And perhaps that’s unsurprising given the history. For Western Europeans, the trauma of World War II is a distant memory. For Eastern Europeans, the trauma resulting from the war lasted much longer, and the wounds are so fresh that the insecurity is still felt today.

The EU for Eastern countries doesn't just mean new funding for infrastructure improvements and shopping malls. It means a sense of purpose, a new destiny, a future. And it is a promising alternative to the misery that was experienced during the past century. Lithuania sees a purpose in unity.

I sometimes feel that Western Europeans are focused on a glorious past, and for them the EU feels like a shackle constraining them. Eastern Europeans aren’t so keen on looking back at an unsettling and traumatic past. They look to the future. For many of them, the EU means something very different. For Lithuanians, this hope for the future is made up of more jobs, better connections to friendly neighbours and true, lasting independence from Russia. 

Sometimes, when I get tired of the apathy and cynicism of Western Europe, it’s nice to spend a bit of time in the East. It’s much more interesting to talk to someone who’s looking forward than someone who appears transfixed on something behind them.

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