Why relations between Lithuania and Latvia aren’t all that fraternal

Lithuania's Mindaugas Kuzminskas during Lithuania Latvia basketball game
DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

In 2018 Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will their one hundred-year anniversary of statehood. For Latvia and Estonia it was the establishment of their states and for Lithuania re-establishment.
Debate on giving citizenship to ‘non-citizens’.

LRT radio correspondent in Riga Arūnas Vaikutis says that events marking the one hundred years of statehood are already underway.

“If we Lithuanians were to prepare for announcing one hundred years of restoration of independence, we’d remember the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Latvians don’t have that and everything fits into the interwar years. That’s why that period is examined and people are reminded of how it all was. Much attention is also given to history – by 2018 a lot of books on Latvian history will have been published; what will be asked is what mistakes did Latvia make in that it didn’t manage to keep its independence”, – says Arūnas Vaikutis.

Furthermore, according to Arūnas Vaikutis, as the 25-year anniversary approaches when the first states recognised Latvia’s independence, what’ll be asked is what did Latvia overcome in order strengthen itself.

In Latvia there are many people of different nationalities who have the status of ‘non-citizen’, something peculiar to Latvia. There are about 300 thousand such people in Latvia and they are waiting for some reproach from European institutions. It was said that maybe on the occasion of the one-hundred year’s anniversary they would get citizenship. Yet how will that be done and how can it change the political situation in the country?

On the other hand, it is stressed that perhaps not all of them would like to become citizens of Latvia, especially the older people because ‘non-citizens’ can travel to the former Soviet republics without visas. If a person has relatives in Russia, they would need to get a visa which costs 200 euro. For pensioners that’s a huge amount of money. Quite a number of people won’t opt then for Latvian citizenship and rather remain ‘non-citizens’ which would allow free travel to Russia. Young people however are more likely to get citizenship. Children of ‘non-citizens’ born after the 4th of May 1991 can automatically become citizens if their parents request it”, – says Arūnas Vaikutis.

In his opinion, people are discussing this sort of thing as the hundred-year anniversary approaches although official steps legalizing citizenship for all are not being taken.

As Mr. Vaikutis states, with the euphoria of the anniversary there are government officials who have other things to think about. “People are leaving the country en masse. During the Soviet times the population of Riga was at its largest reaching 910 thousand. Now it’s hardly makes 700 thousand with the population of the capital being 648 thousand. One of the reasons for the drop is that during the Soviet times there were a lot of Russians living in Riga and when Latvia became independent many left”, – he says.

Security and EU policy are examples

East European Studies Centre (EESC) director Linas Kojala believes that cooperation between Latvia and Lithuania is productive because many common strategy interests link the two countries.
“For example there are the efforts to improve integration in the European Union and NATO, get more of a security guarantee for the region from the point of view of geopolitical challenges and to ensure long-term economic growth supported by Eurozone stability. That’s successfully used in various ways. For example, before 2016 the Baltic States were speaking with one voice at the NATO summit in Warsaw in seeking deployment of the Alliance’s forces. In meetings with US leaders, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia also work together and before making any decisions on a EU level, they at least at a minimum level seek to coordinate positions and defend common interests. Furthermore, Latvia is Lithuania’s fourth most important trading partner”, – says Mr. Kojala.

On the other hand, according to Mr. Kojala, there aren’t many reasons that make relations special or overly fraternal. Although there are many common interests, there is however the normal competition for international investment and the like. There isn’t always agreement on important projects: there has been talk for a long time on a regional liquid natural gas terminal that could be built in Latvia. The Latvians however are bound by a a long-term agreement with Gazprom that ends in 2017 and so it was decided to take another path. It’s exactly the same with the Via Baltica, says Mr.Kojala, in that emotional, cultural or historical intimacy does not make way for pragmatic interests”.

“One would like long-standing issues like recognizing the sea border to be eventually resolved. Paradoxically, it is namely with Latvia that there are territorial disputes and which are spurred on by possible resources in the Baltic Sea. There’s reason to be glad that Latvia is renewing a work group for negotiations so that the issue can be revitalized. Yet that is just one more piece of proof that in practical situations it is difficult to establish a special closeness between the countries”, – notes Mr. Kojala.

According to Mr. Kojala, model cooperation between the countries is a two-way street.
“I could single out security policy especially when it comes to what’s happening in Ukraine, when the aim is to prioritise strengthening of the security of the Baltic States. It seems that it’s theoretically easy to separate remaining partners in the West along the Suvalki corridor. A common EU policy as well that has potential for the future: today within the EU there is a lot of skepticism, populist forces are on the rise but support for European integration in the Baltic states is strong. That could form a basis for close cooperation that proposes a vision for the future of all of Europe – as the Eurosceptic Visegrad Group of countries tend to do”, says Mr. Kojala.

As Professor Butkus states, there was more cooperation between Lithuanians and Latvians in the inter-war period especially in terms of the two societies: “This time it’s the opposite – the government it seems wants to cooperate but between the societies there isn’t any closeness or close links. There are separate workshops let’s say of writers, artists and musicians that work together but the cooperation that’s wanted doesn’t exist”.

Professor Butkus believes that as far as the economy is concerned, we always are and will be competitors. However, when it comes to culture we can work together a lot more closely. “For several years in a row we have been hitting our heads against the wall that Latvian television can be viewed in Lithuania and Lithuanian in Latvia. We can organise mutual programs; there are about 20 thousand Lithuanians living in Latvia. In Latvia there are Lithuanians that were not free after exile to return to Lithuania, and so they chose Latvia. In the same way there are some Latvians in Lithuania who after exile chose our country”, – says the Professor.

Mr. Kojala in turn doubts that cooperation between the two societies could be initiated on a state level – “where there’s a will to cooperate, it will happen”.

“Civil organisations, art groups and the like can work together. When it doesn’t exist artificially creating it doesn’t work. Maybe we more than likely lack general knowledge regarding what is happening in the neighbouring country, in its politics, what dilemmas there are in the country, which nation constitutes the biggest minority, people without citizenship etc. That is especially topical in today’s political context. If we pay a lot of attention on an expert, academic and media level, then we would understand each other better”, – says Mr. Kojala.

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