05/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Baltic states preserve identities, but remain vulnerable

The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and have since all joined the European Union. Worldfocus producer Ara Ayer reported on a signature series from the Baltics and writes about those nations’ efforts to retain their national and cultural identities, even as the global economic crisis looms and Russia reemerges as a world power.

“Freedom of the moment:” An Estonian boy cries out at the apex of a climbing tower in Tallinn. Photo: Ara Ayer

Symbols of ethnic pride abound in the Baltics. Whether its Riga’s Freedom Statue, Vilnius’ Gediminas Castle or a little boy exhaulting on a climbing tower in Tallinn, no definitive monument stands to represent the ongoing struggle for independence in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The Baltic states may have traded membership in the former Soviet Union for entry into the European Union and NATO, but they struggle to maintain their separate identities. That they exist at all is a testament to the fortitude of their people. Before the Soviet onslaught, empires of Poland, Prussia, Russia and Scandinavia all tried to incorporate one or more of the Baltic states.

Possessing a prized coastline — an approximate collective land mass of two West Virginias, Vermont and New Hampshire, with a population less than New York City — the Baltic states remain vulnerable. Producing stories with Worldfocus colleague Sally Garner, I found each country has different approaches to self-preservation.

Up until the global economic downturn, Latvia had the fastest growing economy in Europe. It quickly shed its communist past and looked for security and success in the credit and economic structures of the West. Yet rather than providing safety and sustainable growth, Western banking policies and an awakened Latvian consumerism exposed the country to excessive risk.

Now, Latvia teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Street protests, government instability and rising unemployment are the hallmarks of a once proud nation. In our reporting, we spoke with a Latvian on the brink of losing his job. He said Latvia is failing because it forgot itself, its strengths and limitations, in the headlong rush to become part of Europe. Disenchanted with a dream deferred, he says he’ll join thousands of his countrymen leaving Latvia for a better life. With over 40 percent of Latvians being of Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish descent, the loss of every ethnic Latvian puts the country in a quandary.

Lithuania and Estonia are in better shape economically, but not by much. The Lithuanian government is investing in language, specifically Lithuanian, to help preserve its national identity. Lithuanian is the official and sole language in matters of law, commerce, government and public life. If you are Lithuanian and speak Russian, Polish or German, check your ancestry at the door.

The Lithuanian government has empowered a language police corps to yank down foreign language street signs, correct publications and catch the nation’s newscasters in Lithuanian pronunciation and grammar mistakes. One wonders if such forced obedience will play out in a multilingual world. But then again, they aren’t trying to save the world — just Lithuania.

Estonia by and large is the most technologically-evolved of the trio. The country has placed its future in the digital age by building a “state of the art” civic Internet service. Via computer and phone, one can view everything, from a child’s report card to a live press briefing from the Estonian prime minister. A specially-encrypted Estonian identification card with an embedded digital signature allows Estonians to securely authenticate legal documents, vote, even pay for parking — all online. Estonians believe such Internet access makes for transparent government, responsible citizenry and better business — touchstones of resiliency in uncertain times.

No one can fault these small countries in their ongoing attempts to ensure their existence. Possibly the most important thing each is doing to protect themselves is participate in NATO, United Nations and U.S. coalition military missions. All sent combat troops to Iraq and all are continuing to send troops to Afghanistan. Though their collective deployment has never exceeded 2,000 troops per mission, their commitment to building modern armies and strengthening their ties with NATO cannot be questioned.

The reemergence of Russia as a world power has the Baltics — people, politicians and military men — on edge. Speaking softly but carrying a NATO membership may be the best defense and innovation in preserving Baltic identity and integrity yet.

- Ara Ayer

Worldfocus producer Ara Ayer reported on a signature series from the Baltics and writes about those nations’ efforts to retain their national and cultural identities, even as the global economic crisis looms and Russia reemerges as a world power. /files/2009/04/th_estonia_ara.jpg