If You are Attacking Syria … We Occupy the Baltic  States

                                           Jiri & Leni Friedman Valenta

​                                                                           August 30, 2013

On August 27, 2013,  a senior Russian analyst, Mikhail Aleksandrov, head of the Baltics section of the Moscow Institute CIS, published  some unusual advice to President Vladimir Putin in an article on his on-line journal.  The piece was entitled, “Window on Eurasia:  If U.S. Attacks Syria, Russia Should Send Troops Into Baltic Countries.”  It also appeared in an Armenian newspaper.

Three days later, President Barack Obama hosted three Baltics leaders in the White House, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Llves, Latvian President Andris Berzins and Lithuanian President  Dalia Grybauskaite. It was the first meeting of this kind since 1988. 

Coincidence?   On the 27th Obama was seriously contemplating a military strike against Syria using Tomahawk missiles deployed on five destroyers near the Syrian coast.  Was he briefed about these threats against the Baltics?  Our guess is yes. 

On the same day as the White House meeting, Aleksandrov again provocatively called for  Moscow to occupy the Baltic countries.  His arguments, echoed by leading Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhironovsky,  indicated that  the strategy was to create a “dilemma” for the West elsewhere if Syria was attacked. 

What we also learn from his article is the interesting fact that he thinks the Baltics, unlike Armenia, are  “reliable allies.”  Thus, he stated that in the event of a Russian occupation, “I think half of the population of Latvia and Estonia will meet the Russian troops with flowers as it was in 1940.”

As we learned in our travels,  Russians who emigrate to the Balkans  tend to transfer their allegiance to their new home county. But Aleksandrov also seems not  to know that during the Baltics´ struggle to gain or keep independence, the Soviets did intervene in Lithuania in January 1991, and both Estonia and Latvia were armed, barricaded and determined to resist as the tanks were coming.  No flowers. Fortunately the Soviets retreated against the prospect of unthinkable  bloodshed.

So Aleksandrov´s strategy that  Moscow should, “right now begin to concentrate it’s military on the borders of Latvia and Estonia …” would not, as he thinks, have “a sobering influence on the hotheads in Washington.”   Such a move could even create a dilemma for Russia by launching  WWIII.  Since 2004, the Baltics have been  under the flag of NATO.  They are also members of the European Union currently presided over by Lithuania.   

Mr. Aleksandrov did say his opinions are his own, were not reflective of Russian policy, and were published in a blog.   We hope that´s true though we have some doubts that President Putin was ignorant of his views.  But  he and Mr.  Zhironovsky  display  signs of  dangerous Soviet, Cold War, old-think, still festering  in the bowels of the Kremlin. Incredibly, he also seems to think that an attack on the Baltics is the equivalent of a strike against Syria.  It is not. 

 The strike against Syria was contemplated as a limited, humanitarian mission against a butcher who used poison gas against his own people.  There would have been no attempt at occupation.  A Russian intervention in the Baltics would be simply exploitative aggression against free and independent countries. Moreover, when Russians occupy, they stay.

Russia´s Uneasy Relations with the Baltics

 Nevertheless, Aleksandrov certainly has fingered an important research agenda covered by these writers.  Is the most important post-communist nation, Russia, trying to engage in the reconquesta of the empire she lost after the August 1991 putsch?  Aleksandrov´s institute appears to have this as its major focus. He also discusses in his article that his original intention was to occupy the three republics of the South Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

A reconquesta would be extremely bad policy for Russia in the era of nation states.  The Soviet empire failed in large part through imperial overreach. But it is necessary, from our point of view, to look at immediate problems that are creating a hostile environment between Russia and the Baltic states.    

Russia´s Relations with the Baltics

 The relations between Russia and the Baltics  never have been congenial. To begin with, despite their centuries of domination under the tsars, the Baltics are countries which spiritually belong to the West.  They practice the Latin forms of the Christian religion.  They were members of the sort of old EU, the Hanseatic League, in the middle ages.   They have no desire to be part of the Russian empire.  Russian tanks will not be met with flowers.

Secondly, there are territorial disputes. In 2005, the Estonian parliament ratified the treaties with common borders, but included additional demands linked to a 1920 peace treaty between Russia and Estonia.  In response, the Russians revoked their signature from the treaty, arguing it was no longer valid.  The Latvians meanwhile, included an amendment to the treaty or an exploratory declaration claiming that the district of the neighboring Pskov region is theirs.  That was transferred to Stalin in 1944. 

Thirdly, there have been complaints by the Baltics over former Russian colonization policies, which were carried to an extreme under Stalin.  They involved the deportation of native ethnics and the forced immigration into Latvia and Estonia of Russian workers, particularly after WWII.  The intent was to change the ethnic balance of conquered countries in order to keep them bound to the empire.   By 1989, the ethnic Latvians comprised about 52% of the population while the Russians comprised 30%.  the figure for 2005 is that Latvians now comprise about 60% of the total population with most of the rest Russians. Estonia has a sizable but smaller number of Russians.

Meanwhile, Russia has been critical of both Latvia and Estonia for their treatment of Russians.  Their complaint is that Russian ethnics in Latvia cannot meet citizenship requirements, which involve passing an exam in the Latvian language.   There are  fewer complaints about Lithuania, which has far  fewer Russians than its neighbors. Moreover, Lithuania,  has made significant efforts in the direction of ensuring equal rights. 

Fourthly, Moscow, in the process of building trade alliances with former Soviet republics, is reluctant to see its neighbors in the Baltics, as well as the Ukraine, sign free-trade agreements" with the European Union.   Thus, Lithuania, currently presiding over the EU, recently had dairy transport trucks held up at Russian customs for up to 20 days at a time in recent weeks on supposed ¨quality Concerns.” 

Hopefully, President Putin, unlike Aleksandrov and Zhironovsky, recognizes that attempting to reconquer the Baltics is out of the question.   Russia shares with America mutual concerns over terrorism.  Civilized people have come to recognize that we are in a new era, one in which the interdependence of nations is paramount for the economic survival of all.  At this juncture of history, nuclear war between Great Powers is simply unacceptable.

We believe that we have to work with both our NATO, post-communist allies in the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia an Lithuania, but also with our Great Power, post-communist partner, Russia, to find peaceful resolutions to present disputes. It is for this reason that we bring to these issues a discussion of the history, cultural and religious fault lines, disputes and tensions presently at play. 

Our Interviews with Baltic Leaders

To learn more about Russia´s relations with the Baltics, please read the articles  on both Estonia and Latvia.  Both came about as the result of research we conducted with Baltics leaders past and present, as well as scholars and analysts on site in these countries.  We primarily concentrated on Estonia and Latvia although we conducted research on Lithuania as well.

Rather than looking at post-communism regionally like most analysts till now, we now have to focus on linkages between post-communist states, rogue regimes and terrorist organizations. For example, the policies of post-communist regime, Russia, also involve Syria, as well as terrorist, rebel groups operating in Syria.

 We also observed that following the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, two post-communist hybrids,  Venezuela and Nicaragua,  were the only world countries that recognized the two breakaway regions of Georgia both of which were backed by the Russians,  South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

The reader interested in Estonia and Latvia will find unique material in the Estonian and Latvian sections. 


                                 Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

                                                                     August 12, 2017

Originally published under the aegis of European affairs executive Ellen Wasylina by the International Geostrategic Maritime Review in Paris, Spring-Summer, 2017,    No. 8 Strategic Baltic Sea. 

This comprehensive strategic, historical, and geopolitical study has just been updated and re-published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel.  


General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former NATO Deputy Supreme Commander of Europe and its highest-ranking British officer, has created a stir with a novel that anticipates a Russian invasion of the Baltics in 2017 followed by a war with NATO.  In his fictional projection he raises the question of whether Putin might take a fateful decision in the region through NATO member Latvia, a state with about 30% Russian speakers, as he did earlier in 2008 Georgia, 2014 Crimea and 2014-2017 in the eastern Ukraine? Will he then, as Shirreff posits, blackmail NATO by threatening a nuclear response?  And if NATO collectively responds according to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, will a conventional war transition into a nuclear one?

  Yet another warlike scenario for Russia’s conquest of the Baltics has been suggested by retired U.S. General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. An outspoken and thoughtful warrior and military intellectual, Keane posits the Russians would invade not Latvia, but Lithuania from their enclave of Kalingrad and then go on to conquer the whole Baltics region.

 One should certainly not underestimate the threat from this former Teutonic city, 6000 square miles squeezed between between Lithuania and Poland.  The nearest Russian territory to London and other major Western cities, Kalingrad is now the most militarized territory in Europe. The Russians have deployed not just conventional motorized troops, but Iskander-M and Bastion missile systems used very successfully in Syria. 

 As Keane posits, there is a real possibility of Russia launching a hybrid, military occupation similar to what he did in eastern Ukraine through Lithuania.  He adds, “What Russia is attempting to accomplish is what they have rehearsed in more than a dozen exercises in the last three years --  to take away the US/NATO air and maritime power advantage by denying these systems access to the area.”

 Yet a third scenario involves the purpose of the scheduled, largest Zapad 2017 maneuvers ever in Belorussia, bordering Latvia, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, and coming in September 2017. In this regard, a third hypothetical scenario,  posed by Belarus Digest, pictures Russian proxies operating as Belorussian nationalists or Ukrainian provocateurs or even local security forces, to perform a Kremlin coup in this non NATO country, which can then serve Russia as a flash point for menacing the Baltics.

Our paper examines the viability of these three war-like scenarios as part of our study of Russia’s possible interventionist moves within the geopolitically important Baltic area and what NATO and the countries threatened are doing in response. Importantly, these NATO countries present an enormous risk to Russia. First we examine the pattern of Putin’s interventionism at Russia’s periphery where, both in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin did not attempt costly, full interventions. The novelty under him has been limited, low-cost interventions aimed at carving only territories with sizable Russian speaking populations.

 Putin’s intentions’s are also likely influenced by the re-emerging geopolitical realignment in the Baltics, where the deployment of a Russian naval force in the Baltic Sea and the buildup in Kalingrad, have brought significant changes to Swedish and Finnish perceptions. Both are getting closer to joining NATO -- surely at a major geopolitical cost to Russian calculations in the Baltics. Although they are not NATO countries, Sweden has signed a defense pact with the U.S. and Finland wants to do the same.

 Of great concern to these countries, due to their vulnerability are Sweden’s Gotland Island and Finland's Ayland Islands. Falling into Putin’s hands Gotland would pose a strategic nightmare for NATO in its efforts to aid the Baltics. Thus,  Sweden has already increased its cooperation with NATO forces as we saw in the recent Baltops [Baltics] exercises. This June the Baltops will include unusual high end military maneuvers.  Sweden has also reintroduced troops into Gotland against a possible Russian invasion.

 Our preliminary conclusion is that a direct Russia’s attack on a NATO members country like Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania is unlikely. Still, military conflict in the geopolitically important region of the Baltic Sea can indeed happen by policymakers’s miscalculation and not necessarily through a suicidal direct, Russian invasion provoking war with NATO. We thus examine three scenarios. 1. Conflict between the ethnic, large Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia and their existing governments, perhaps fomented by Russia. 2. Cybernetic warfare and mission creep. In 2007 Russia waged a cyber war in Estonia, the first in the history of mankind.  It’s a new weapon and war can erupt through a cybernetic miscalculation in the fall of 2017.  3. A coup and occupation by Russia of Belorussia and its spillover effects on the Baltic states,

 While focusing NATO’s attention on Russia’s possible geopolitical moves in the Baltic littoral states, we also examine what has not received sufficient focus; the motivations behind Putin’s interventionism, the overall geopolitical changes in the region and --very important -- the linkages of the Russian threat to Belorussia with continuous interventions in Syria and Ukraine. 

Since our paper was published, Russia has begun joint maneuvers in the Baltic Sea with China.

To read the entire paper, CLICK HERE.

The earlier version of this comprehensive  article also can be purchased from the International Geostrategic Maritime Observatory, at :


               Dr. Jiri Valenta with former Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar

                                       An Interview with Edgar Savisaar

                    On the "Bronze Night" and Riots Over Statue's Removal

                                      Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta


                                                                  August 10, 2010


We are members of NATO and we try to uphold our duties,” said former Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar firmly.  Yet Savisaar, now mayor of capitol Tallinn, admitted his displeasure with some aspects of Estonian politics.  One of these, still fresh in memory, was the “Bronze Night,“ the April 2007 rioting and bloodshed over the removal of the statue of a Soviet soldier from the Tallinn center to a military cemetery.  “…A big mistake; one which impacted negatively on Russian-Estonian relations,” said our host. 

The removal of the bronze soldier had been ordered by the government on the shaky grounds that it was located in a busy intersection.  The statue‘s uprooting was to have been followed by the similar transfer of the remains of a dozen soldiers buried under it.  But then all hell erupted! 

The several days of uproar that followed had resulted in the death of one person, injuries to a hundred others and more than a thousand detainees. 1 The protesters were largely members of Estonia’s large, Russian minority, for whom the monument was a symbol of liberation from fascist forces during WWII. To them the whole affair was a red flag, no pun intended. Significant numbers of this population were already seething over the fact that they could not pass the Estonian language tests required for citizenship and that the teaching of Russian was being marginalized in the schools.

Then came a massive cyber-attack against Estonia, the first against a nation state. While the culprit(s) remained unknown, circumstantial evidence seemed to point to Russia as her internet forums were exhorting people to attack specific websites and offering links to 
software tools.

A second, and related issue on Savisaar’s mind was  some  ongoing episodes in which Estonians associated with the ruling party had eulogized  fallen countrymen who had fought on the side of the  Germans during WWII.  The monuments to these Estonian Nazis were also a major issue.  Small wonder that on April 27th the Russian Federation Council stated that the "dismantling of  the (Bronze soldier) monument and the mockery of the remains of the fallen soldiers is just more evidence of the vengeful policy towards Russians living in Estonia.

While most Estonians do not warm to Nazis, they have uniformly viewed  the former Soviet occupation as illegal and the Bronze soldier as its hated symbol.  Consequently, the Russians who migrated to Estonia during the occupation either willingly or forcibly by Stalin, strive against the notion that they are there illegally. 

Neither do they look benignly on the Nazi episodes, usually overlooked by American scholars.  The latter, are  covered in detail in the must-read article “Echoes of the Swastika,“ by Estonian scholar Dr. Igor Rosenfeld, published  in our Estonia  section. 

During those fiery and tense “Bronze nights”  of rioting, world opinion divided  along predictably political lines, but Russia stood out for the sizzling magnitude of its fury.  Immediately after the removal of the statue, the Russian Federation Council militated for the “toughest possible measures against Estonia.”3  Not only did Russian stores  boycott Estonian goods and commodities, and the largest supermarkets ban all Estonian commodities, but  Russia  also announced plans for repairing the railway lines to Estonia, aimed at disrupting Estonian  oil exports to world markets. 

On May 2, the Estonian Embassy in Moscow was attacked by protesters and picketed by  Russian Nashi [our people], or patriotic youths. Protesters also attacked the Estonian ambassador and had to be dispersed by security guards. 4

For Heaven’s sake! What was going on Estonia?


Summer Days of the Centrist Party

Our July 4th, 2010 interview with Mr. Savisaar took place during an event called “Summer Days of the Centrist Party” in the southern Estonian town of Haania.  In another six months, Estonia was scheduled to become the seventeenth nation of the European community.  With this entry,  Estonia, in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis, was to garner the honor of becoming the first ex-communist Soviet state to adopt the European single currency. 

By every economic measure, things were going well.   As European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and EU Economy Commissioner Olli Rehn put it, they were “very impressed” by Estonia’s fiscal performance, "which will distinguish the Baltic state as having the lowest level of debt among all euro area members. 5

Watching Savisaar address the Centrist Party faithful in the sunny, park-like setting overlooking Stork Lake, we recalled  that this thickset, gray-haired, bespectacled man, was  said to be "respected for his intelligence and determination," but "much disliked for his abrasive character." He supposedly had “crude manners,“ was “arrogant” and had “an abnormal sensitivity to criticism.” 6 

We did not detect any of these traits,   On the contrary,  during our personal interview with the former prime minister, translated by the amiable Tartu deputy mayor and university professor, Aadu Must,  we had the impression of a sensible and intelligent, if somewhat defensive politician. 7 

The former chairman of Estonia’s Soviet state planning committee-turned a founding member of the 1980 Estonian popular front-turned prime minister in 1990-92, Savisaar had helped to engineer his country’s independence.  (His associate in this endeavor, the late Tartu University professor, Viktor Palm, is eulogized in our Estonia section). 

We were also aware from our three prior visits to Estonia, that capitol Tallinn, under Savisaar's watch, was becoming a  capitol of culture, with large scale restorative work and new infrastructure.  At the moment, however, the mayor was focused on seeking some rapprochement with the large Russian minority, something he felt the ruling party wasn‘t.

There´s a Problem in Latvia Too

Visiting Latvia a few weeks later, we learned more about the Baltic Russians from Dainis Ivans, a retired politician turned prolific author of several books, who also favored compromise on behalf of his country’s large Russian-born population.   Like Savisaar, Ivans was a  former leader in the vanguard of obtaining his country’s independence.  Unlike Savisaar, he is a tall, slim, handsome, athletic man with  a receding hairline and long  hair worn in a ponytail.  Whereas  Savisaar was; cool and rational, Ivans  was  warm, expressive and open.

Taking a few hours off from writing a book about the Riga zoo, and over cups of mint tea in his picturesque farmhouse, Ivans acknowledged that although the Baltic Russians constitute almost half the population of Latvia, the immigration  problem is more acute in Estonia.  Passing a language test is a requirement for citizenship in both countries, yet, as Ivans explained.  Latvia‘s Indo-European Latin language is far easier for the Russian’s to learn than the more complex, Finno-Ugric Estonian one. 

A prize-winning journalist specializing primarily in environmental issues -- turned former chairman of the Latvian Popular Front 1988-1990-- turned first deputy chairman of the Latvian Supreme Council from 1990-1991, Ivans had made an unforgettable statement during his acceptance speech for that office, acknowledging the stateless situation of many Baltic Russians. "Thank God I was born a Latvian and wish to die a Latvian,” he stated.  “ I am not ashamed to say this, and I don't want my people to meet the same tragic fate that has befallen Russified Latvians, some of whom are in this hall." 8

Once praised by columnist William Safire, as the ideal candidate for the Latvian presidency, it was not to be.  While Savisaar was defeated in the 1992 Estonian election,  Ivans had resigned already  in November 1991, disgusted with what he viewed as the corruption of Latvia’s new leaders, and having become a target of his political enemies.  Neither had his opinion of Latvian politics improved. He expressed his view that the people of Latvia have little trust in any political party.


Narva, a Visible Symbol of the Clash of Civilizations

Our earlier visit with Savisaar followed hard upon a tour of the Estonian city of Narva, bordering Russia on the Finnish Gulf. Standing before Estonia’s Herman Order Castle we could look  across the turbulent Narva River at the Russian stronghold of Ivangorod.  The symbolism of these two renovated fortresses, virtually a stone’s throw  from each other,  visually provides what Russian-Estonian writer Oscar Ida described as  "a unique panorama ...  the left bank of the river -- Estonia and the European Union, the right one -- Russia. 

 At various times it was here that historical oppositions met;  West and East, vanquished and victors, Estonians and Slavs, paganism and Christianity, Lutherans and Orthodox, Narva and Ivangorod,  Teutonic castle  and Ivangorod fortress... Deep, impetuous Narva; she had all of this contrasted and united  -- simultaneously [odnovremenno]." 9  

Recalling  Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations, we were   reminded of other civilization fault lines we had viewed.  One was  at  the Terek River dividing Orthodox Russia from the prevailingly Moslem Northern Caucasus with  a variety of ethnic groups.   Another was the Neretva River in former Yugoslavia, which cleaves the city of Mostar’s Catholic Croatian section  from its Moslem Bosnian one.   A third was in the Ukraine.  It is above all the city of Lvov  Lviv in Ukrainian). 

 It is this city, near to the Polish border, that symbolizes the civilization of the Western Ukraine in contrast to the civilization of the Eastern region.  Like Prague and Vienna, the center of Lvov  consists of buildings familiar to anyone from Central Europe.  Incidentally, you do not find the same variety of Western Renaissance architecture in the Lutheran cities of Tallinn, Riga or even Helsinki.  They are not part of the Central European type of civilization.  Surely, Lvov is quite different from the "other" Ukraine in the East, permeated by the Orthodox religion and traditions.  But all this will be discussed in our section on the Ukraine.

In any event, Narva  generated in our minds certain questions.   What historical, economic and cultural sources were behind the present tensions?  Nations, like people, have complex histories which mold or mar them. Were our diplomats in the Baltic countries  aware, for example, of the persistent sociological residues related to occupations by both German fascists and Soviet  communists?  Even more important, was there anything the U.S. could do to help ease the tensions in these countries and prevent future conflicts.

A cultural-historical analysis of these nations clearly seemed in order.  Perhaps we can better learn where these countries may be going  based on where they have already been. Scholarly Research And Analysis

                                                    AMALGAMATION OF CIVILIZATIONS
                                                Dr. Jiri Valenta  & Leni Valenta

​                                                          Posted March 4, 2017

Geography is Destiny 
As with nations everywhere, the geography of the Baltics has been their destiny.  Located at a strategic crossroad between the Baltic Sea and Eastern and Western Europe,  Estonia is  about a third smaller and  relatively flatter than Latvia.  In medieval times, the Western part of present day Latvia was known as Vidzme, while the Eastern part was, and still is called Latgale.  Vidzme and Estonia were also joined together in a single country known as Livonia.    (Lithuania, for centuries was part of a single commonwealth with Poland,  will be discussed  at alater time).

What both Latvia and Estonia have in common are numerous lakes and waterways which have figured  as routes for trade as well as conquest.   Among these is Eston'a's Lake Peipus, one of Europe's largest lakes, which shares a border with Russia, and the Narva River which flows from Lake Peipus to the Baltic Sea.  What distinguishes Estonia from Latvia, however, is that Estonian geography has undergone more significant changers over the centuries. From the 5th  to the 16th century, as the map of Livonia clearly indicates, there was a well known Viking and Russian warriors' and traders'  waterway  going from the Baltic Sea through Tartu to Lake Peipsi.   

As posited by Tartu scholar Malle Salupere, the main rivers of Estonia were  the Emajogi and Parnu, known by the Latin name Mater Aquarum [mother of waters],  in Estonian as  “Emavesi"  and in Russian as "Omov’zha [mother water]."10   Both rivers helped to comprise the shortest trade route between the major Russian trade centers of Novgorod and Pskov,  the Estonian city of Tartu and the Baltic Sea.  As Malle explained to us, however, this important  river route to Tartu and then to the Baltic Sea was interrupted with geologic changes during the  Middle Ages.   After that, Tartu’s commercial and strategic importance declined and it became primarily the intellectual  and cultural center of the country.

In contrast to Estonia, Latvia has preserved its largest river the Daugava  (in Russian, Dvina), as its main river.  Unlike the Emajogi, however, the Daugava has been preserved, becoming  the waterway of warriors and traders.  The "roots of Latvian culture," in Ivans words, "are associated since ancient times with the Daugava, the "ebonit river." It is  the force behind  capitol Riga’s growth as a major trade center. 11  As Dainis Ivans told us and has also written, the Daugava has been the main force in shaping Latvian civilization.  “Without the river, there is no farmer… River is life’s road through the world.” 12

Yet, even more important than the river waterways was the Baltic Sea.  Also a route for conquest, it enabled  Estonia and Latvia to trade with Western nations, particularly nearby Finland and Sweden, but also Denmark and Germany. By contrast, Lithuania, with its short coastline, marshes and deep forests, was more isolated.   Still today, with the whole Baltic region lacking a viable system of modern railroads and super highways, the best routes to Tallinn and Riga are  by sea from  Helsinki, Stockholm and  St. Petersburg -- not, as we ourselves experienced,  from  ports in the  Baltic countries.  Land access to Estonia from central Europe is available by buses and taxis from Warsaw via Vilnius and Riga.  The land route, however, goes through territory sandwiched between the Russian territory of Kalingrad on the left and  Belarus, the last communist dictatorship on the continent, on the right.  Our Polish taxi driver was understandably nervous about straying into either one.    
Clash of Civilizations

Huntington’s  “clash of civilizations” thesis presents a useful -- if incomplete --departure for discussing  Estonian and Latvian history.  Undoubtedly, clashes of civilization  were encouraged by the geographic location and setting.  As Dominic Lieven shows, the existence of great, navigable waterways linking the Muscovite heartland with the Baltics  encouraged Russia to not only trade with these neighbors, but to repeatedly attempt to conquer them.  13  

The first  foray came during the Kievan Rus when Prince Yaroslav captured  the strategic, then commercial center of Tartu  in 1050. During the eleven years of Russian occupation, Tartu‘s name was changed to the Russian “Yurjev.” Another occurred in 1558, when Russia’s Ivan the Terrible began the Livonian War,  using as his pretext the so called “Tartu tax” that had been levied on the city’s bishopric centuries ago. The Russian  occupation lasted until 1581.  Ivan’s  conquests  included Narva as well as the Hanseatic, Latvian city of Cesis (1571), another important trade center. 

The third Russian conquest of Livonia came in 1710 as the tsar Westernizer, Peter the Great, subdued the leading regional power, Sweden, in a coalition with the Danes and Poles.  He officially annexed it to Russia in 1721.  There it would remain for 200 years. However,  Latgale, then under Polish rule,  was  incorporated into Russia, together with Poland and Lithuania during the 1775 partition of the Poland under the Empress Catherine the Great.  

Briefly gaining independence in 1919, Estonia,  Latvia and Lithuania were re-conquered by the empire’s brutal forces in 1940-41 and again in 1945,  this time for the next 46 years.  There were certain differences with Latvia, however. During WWI, the Latvians, unlike the Estonians, were allowed to create their own army and  fiercely but  unsuccessfully fought the Germans  on behalf of the Russian empire.  Following  the armistice, Latvia, earlier than Estonia, became independent on November 18, 1918, with the blessing of Lenin. The favor was in part returned as some Latvians, like Ivans’ uncle, served in Lenin’s Latvian Riflemen, the faithful Kremlin guards.   Yet most Latvians, like the Estonians, resented the 1940-41 and 1945 Soviet occupation of  their country. 

Clash Within Civilizations

Here we depart from Huntington, as the use, and even over-use, of “clash of civilizations” is too simplistic to explain complex Estonian and Latvian history.  Both of these countries rich histories also include the dynamic process of clashes and conquests within Western civilization.   Tallinn was first occupied in 1290 by the Danes.  The name of the city is an abbreviation of the Estonian name Taani Linnus, which means “Danish stronghold.”

In the 14th century, the Danes sold the  city to the German Knights of the Teutonic Order, who renamed it Reval.  German knights, landlords and scholars  left their lasting influence  in Estonia and latvia  German also became the language of erudition.  Under German, and later Swedish rule,  both countries accepted Protestant values.  

Other  major clashes  within  civilizations  occurred in the 16t-17thh centuries.   Livonia, was ceded to Sweden, while Latgale [Eastern Latvia], experienced repeated occupations by the commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania.  Unsurprisingly, Latgale was greatly shaped  during this period by the Polish Catholic, counter-Reformation culture. Eventually, the Polish Jesuits advanced from Latgale to Eastern Estonia, where in  1558, they established a college of higher education in Tartu. However,  the city’s citizens resented the attempts of the Jesuits  to convert them.  “Since they were human beings and not geese … they wished to serve the faith of their fathers.” 14

Largely neglected by historians, Polish conquest and  rule lasted for  forty years in Tartu and  seventy in Latgale.  In the 17th century, however, the determined Catholic Jesuits were replaced by Swedish “fanatical Lutherans,“  who brought with them  not only their religion, but the requirement that every adult be literate. 15 It was they who founded Tartu University in 1632, operating out of the former Jesuit college establishedoriginallly by the Poles.  Yet, although the city of Tartu changed hands five times thereafter, the Catholic-Polish  era is still remembered today in the design of the city flag of  Tartu, a close cousin of the Polish flag as explained to us by Tartu deputy mayor Aadu Must.  

Meanwhile, Catholicism and a strong, historical-religious tie with Poland remained persistently rooted  not only in Lithuania but in Latgale.  Even today, the basilica of the Latvian city of Aglona  serves as a center for Catholic programs and pilgrimages for the whole Baltic region as well as Russia.  Thus, the clash within civilizations here described has also had a lasting effect on subsequent history.  Consider also that during their first struggle for independence in WWI, Estonians together with  West Latvians defeated German units with the tacit support of the British fleet.  Meanwhile, the Easterners in Latgale allied themselves with Catholic Poland and Lithuania  to defeat the Bolsheviks. 
Amalgamation of Civilizations

By now it should be obvious that Estonian and Latvian history cannot be encapsulated simply within the struggle between East and West.  Aside from excluding clashes within civilization, the weakness of Huntington’s paradigm also lies in the absence of the amalgamation of civilizations -- which have also shaped  the political cultures of the Baltics.

The foundation of the Western economic system in both Estonia and Latvia was laid in medieval times. While  Russia remained isolated from Europe by the Tartar rule, all the Livonian cities, Tallinn, Ravel, Tartu, Parnu and Riga, flourished as members of the Hanseatic League.   The prosperity of these towns was based on their amalgamation not only of  the Western, Protestant religions, but also a mercantilist, Western, economic system.  The legacy of that system would remain their dominant mode --  even through the communist era.  

During this process, the Latvians and Estonians evolved different political cultures as well as what some view as a  different national characters.   The Estonians evolved, in the words of Anatol Lieven, as “cool, rational, organized, hard working and careful with money a people who tend to command respect rather than love.” Their  character is also “embodied in their national anthem, (the very one we saw and heard sung at the Savisaar gathering) “a beautiful but grim and implacable sounding Protestant hymn which they share with the  Finns.” 16   Their flag, a cerebral and ascetic blue, black and white,  also reflects the national character.

On the other hand, Lieven  posits the Latvians as “more emotional” and “mystical” than  the Estonians, asserting that both the Germans and other Balts regarded them as “an unreliable people, with a rare capacity to be passive and patient but to suddenly flare up into gusts of terrible violence.” 17 Whether true or not, it was surely  apparent during  Russia’s 1905 revolution and in 1988-91, that there was far more fire and fury in Latvia and Lithuania than in Estonia, with its prevalent,  nonviolent, legalistic culture.

In contrast to the Estonian national flag,  the Latvian one that we saw in Riga and Cesa is not ascetic, but rather bound in spiritual myth and meaning.   Dainis Ivans explained  to us, and also wrote, that the flag was born when a wounded and dying chieftain was wrapped by a Latvian tribe in a white flag.  It is “saturated with  blood, and in the middle, as a symbol of the virtue of honor and love of one’s native land -- is the river of destiny.  The white Daugava.” 18   To him, the  white color of the river symbolizes not only “clean” but also “beautiful.”  Moved by Ivans’ lyric romanticism, we strove to remember that the Daugava, originating in Russia and  flowing through Belorussia,  is actually very polluted and a subject of deep concern to the populace.  

Yet other aspects of theEstonian and Latvian natures have been described.  While writer Jan Kross attributes the survival of the Estonians to "cheerful skepticism,” the ability to doubt the religious and foreign values offered to them by others without getting too excited about it, Anatol Lieven  describes what he views as the Latvians’ “weird capacity to believe two contradictory things (belief systems) at the  same time.” 19 Here  Ivans  also furnished  a good example -- his uncle, whose picture hung on  the wall, served not only as chief of Lenin’s guards during the 1917 revolution, but also in the German legion at the end of WWII.   During the war he was exiled to Siberia by the Soviet Union. 

To Lievan, the Latvians mixed character is also  reflected in their language, resembling Lithuanian spoken with an Estonian accent.  He also attributes what he calls the “indecision” and “a certain lack of direction” in the Latvians to a different regional and geographic history, including a greater variety of rulers. He further notes that the Latvians are “politically and culturally divided  -- neither fish nor fowl.” However, these differences within Latvia are not as deep as those within the Ukraine, whose eastern and western parts are to be discussed in another section.  Nevertheless, the  Western province of Latvia, Vidzme,  is still closer culturally to Estonia with its Western Protestant, German and Swedish traditions, while the Eastern province, formerly Latgale, is more associated with Catholic Poland, Lithuania and Orthodox Russia.  Thus the Latvians are less homogenous than either the Estonians or Lithuanians.  Indeed, the dialect spoken in Latgale is almost a separate language. 20 

Liberal-Minded Russian Rulers 

The obsession with the “clash of civilizations paradigm” has also permitted some scholars to forget the dramatic and positive amalgamations and changes  introduced by  some liberal-minded, Russian tsars and commissars. Having defeated Napoleon, yet influenced by French revolutionary ideas, Tsar Alexander I understood well the prevalent, Western orientation of  Baltic culture and consequently introduced significant reforms. Above all, he abolished serfdom in the Baltic states several decades before his grandson, Alexander II, did the same in  Russia in 1862.   Unlike the Russian peasants, the Estonian and Latvian ones could buy and sell land. 

 In 1802, Alexander reopened Tartu University, which became the “Sorbonne” of not only  old Livonia, but  the Russian Empire. Many students who studied at Tartu later emerged as professors at leading Russian universities, often acting as agents of European culture. In general too, the Russian rulers supported the civilizing role of the Baltic Germans, particularly in economics, administration and law. 

In the early 1860’s, Alexander I’s liberalization efforts in the Baltics continued under Alexander II, who permitted the founding of the Estonian Aleksandrikool [Alexander School] in memory of his grandfather. During the long Russian-Soviet rule of the Baltics, liberal minded leaders have also tolerated  repeated  resurrections of nationalism. The first one arrived in the 1860’s under Alexander II, following the lost Crimean War.  In the spirit of  glasnost, the first Baltic newspapers were printed and the first freedom-oriented song festivals were allowed to organize in Tartu and Riga. In Mart Larh's words, the Estonians "sung themselves into a nation." 21

Remarkably, more than a century after Alexander II, in 1985, another of the empire’s liberal-minded  rulers, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, like Alexander II earlier, eventually allowed economic reforms and publications of  independent newspapers in the Baltics as part of his own policies of glasnost.   The Estonians again sung themselves into a nation in 1988 with the Kremlin's acquiesence.   This time, the empire's rulers even allowed the creation of popular fronts, orginally permitted to support Gorbachev's reform-minded policies.  

The Struggle for National Independence 

In both Estonia and Latvia, the struggle for independence ensued twice during the 20th century during the empire's weakening and collapse.  In both cases, the first phase was a struggle just  for autonomy. The initial struggle occurred in 1917-1918 following the Bolshevik Revolution in October.  Both countries declared themselves independent, democratic countries.  But Russian forces, occupying the Baltics  during WWI, did not recognize their independence.  Nor did the Bolsheviks, who attacked the country in 1918. Estonia,  and especially Latvia, were occupied both by German and Soviet forces, terror raging on both sides. However, with the collapse of the German Empire, the weakness of the new Soviet one, and sea support from the British Royal Navy, Estonia and Latvians in Vidzme were ultimately able to defeat both armies. In 1918, the Latviadeclared their independence.  That Lenin’s embattled government provided the first international recognition of Estonia in 1920,  might explain why Lenin’s enormous statue still reigns before the Herman Order castle in Narva.

The second struggle for national independence began in the late 1980‘s. Once again, the Estonian and Latvian people, with their basically Western traditions and outlook, began their peaceful struggle for the  revolutionary transformations of their countries.  First came their rejection of economic dictates by the empire’s military-industrial complex, which sought to introduce industrial projects that would ruin the local  ecology.  In Estonia, the intellectuals and students, primarily in Tartu, began their quiet protests against the building of phosphate mines in the countryside.  In Latvia, as explained to us by  Ivans, the struggle was to prevent the construction of three power plants  on the Daugava  River, a project advocated by the Soviet military industrial complex.  Ivans became one of the key writers advocating that the project be discarded. While doing so, he found the support of the key, glasnost-minded Soviet journal in Moscow. 

The ecological struggle both in Estonia and Latvia had, by 1988, once again turned into a strugge for political freedom and autonomy within the Soviet Empire.  Thus, in 1988, both Estonians and Latvians, while organizing popular fronts,  were initially aiming not for full independence, but something similar to what the Finnish duchy had enjoyed under the tsars; domestic autonomy but foreign policy guided by Moscow.  However the resentment and pressures of the Kremlin hardliners to reverse this process radicalized both Estonians and Latvians.  The struggle for autonomy gradually transformed itself into a struggle for independence. Tthe 1991 attempted coup in Moscow was the proverbial straw that broke the camel.

Clash of Two Totalitarian Empires

By now it should be obvious that the key to the present Russian-Estonian/Latvian tension is not simply rooted in the clash of civilizations, but also clashes and amalgamations within  civilizations.  Yet, perhaps the most crucial element in shaping present history was the 1941-45  clash of two implacable enemies of Western civilization and democratic values, Hitler‘s Nazi Germany and Stalin‘s communist USSR. 

Here, one must recall that, whereas a Western economic system was ingrained in the Estonian and Latvian genes throughout the centuries, political democratic values were nevertheless rather weak.  Democracy was substantially vitiated by internal coups in both countries in 1934, which empowered authoritarian regimes.   

Then came a real catastrophe! Following the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, both dictators, Hitler and Stalin, divided most of central Europe into two spheres of influence.  Midway in theunderbelly of Poland, the victorious German army met  the Red army to celebrate the 4th historical partition of this unfortunate country.  Meanwhile, in the spring of 1940, the Baltic states became Stalin’s prize, as, like his favorite tsar, Ivan the Terrible, the Russian dictator imposed a reign of terror on Livonian lands and Lithuania. 

The new empire's occupation and terror was distinguished by a peculiarity of Estonia’s political culture.  Unlike their Ugro-Finnish brethren across the Finnish gulf, the Estonians have traditionally favored  negotiation and legal treaties rather than formidable resistance to an attacking power.   Thus, in 1940, while the Finns bravely fought the Russians against overwhelming odds during the Winter War,  and  while  Latvia and Lithuania  readied their armies to encounter a Soviet occupation, Tallinn,  not even partially mobilized, simply surrendered to the Soviets, making joint Baltic resistence impossible.  It also paid a heavy price. Ten thousand Estonians were deported to the Soviet Union.  Yet 15,000 Latvians were likewise deported, many dying en route to Siberia.

By the end of June 1941,  Estonia and Latvia  were occupied by the Germans as they attacked the USSR, and  mass confusion mingled with unfounded hopes.  The Nazis were sometimes joined by self defense Estonian and Latvian commandos who resisted the Soviets in the forests and  greeted the Germans at first as “liberators.” In return the Germans regarded the Estonians, but not the Latvians, as racially superior to other Baltic peoples and employed some of them in the task of destroying Jews and other “undesirables” like gypsies and left-leaning Estonians.  Estonia had only a small Jewish population, just under 1000.  On German orders, the Estonian self defense commandos killed them. 22  Doubtless, some were also involved in the transfer of thousands of other Jews from other European countries to Estonia for extermination.  In Latvia, which had a prewar Jewish population of 95,000, only about a thousand survived the Nazi genocide. 23

Towards Conflict Prevention

It is impossible to determine whether the crimes and malice of the  Nazi regime were more virulent than the Soviet one. But by no means could the  occupation of the Baltic States by the Germans  be presented as the defense of Western civilization as trumpeted by a few misguided writers in  Estonia. Ultimately, many Estonians and Latvians awoke from their illusion that the Germans would ever restore their independence.  Not surprisingly, some, like Estonian Viktor Palm,  emigrated to the Soviet Union. Palm, who left with his father as a youth of fourteen,  later joined the Soviet army. 

There followed the allied victory and the enormous task of reconstructing bombed out Baltic cities.  Meanwhile, following the Russian tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II,   the commissars pursued an even harsher Russification.  With it came further  large deportations of prominent Estonians and Latvians.  Nor had they abated even by 1949.  Malle Salupere recalled to us the deportation that year of her own family and other kulaks (farm-owning peasants) to the Soviet Union.  As the deportations drained the native Baltic populations, their places were taken by Russian immigrants

As we have witnessed in our travels, all three Baltic countries, particularly Estonia and Latvia, are relatively poor and small by Western European standards.  Yet, Western counterparts, Greece, Ireland and even perhaps Spain, are viewed as economically more risky than the Baltic nations.  In particular,  Estonia and Latvia have managed to  reassure world markets by austere measures,  dramatically lowering wages 10% in Estonia and 15% in Latvia, at the expense of employment and growth.  Like the CEO's of embattled corporations, they have clipped spending despite the high social  price, and remained solvent.   Grounded in the Western economic tradition, and despite its tumultuous past,  Estonia in particular has  remained economically viable --  in contrast even to Latvia.  Dainis Ivans told us that he felt the Euro might be introduced in Latvia by 2012-13, but no banks are presently discussing it.  

Some of Estonia’s economic success must be attributed to the ruling coalition led by Lahr in the early 1990’s. Yet both nations  have enjoyed economic autonomy throughout their history, even despite forced Russification in the late 19th century and forced Sovietization in the 20th. Moreover, both have traditionally enjoyed a higher standard of living than most of the Soviet Union, as well as a relatively more relaxed political atmosphere since the 1960's.  It was for that reason that prominent Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn found for some time a sort of refuge in the vicinity of Tartu as he was harassed by Leonid Brezhnev's KGB in the late 1960's.

Traveling through Estonia in 1987 the late Soviet dissident, Andre Sakharov wrote,"We were amazed by Estonia's high standard of living, the organization and tempo of economic activity, the patent contrast to European Russia... We saw neat, well-spaced farmhouses, peasants preparing fodder with their mowers for their cows (several per farm) and working the fields withtheir tractors... We often  heard people in Estonia saty that they work harder and better, and therefore they live better.  That, of   course, is only a small part of the truth, the superficial explanation.  The deeper reason is that the steamroller of socialism passed over their land later, in a watered-down, rather slipshod fashion.  It had less time to do its destructive work. " 24

As Gorbachev’s one-time chief adviser, the late Alexander Yakovlev, explained to us during our 2000 visit to Moscow, the higher standard of living, together with the Soviet industrial expansion into Latvia and Estonia, made these countries a target for Russian immigration.   The key fact is that at the end of WWII, 90% of the population consisted of native Estonians, whereas now a third of the population is Russian.  Meanwhile,  half of Latvia‘s population is now Slavic.  Of course, for both countries, this includes Ukranians and Byelorussians as well as Russians.  

We are not qualified or eager to review the political differences among Estonian and Latvian parties. However, we do conclude that  Estonia’s and Latvia’s unfortunate histories, marred by the struggle of  and between two totalitarian empires,  is still haunting these countries today. The problems concerning the rights of the Russian minorities in both Estonia and Latvia persist.  The episodes discussed by Dr. Rosenfeld herein do not threaten Estonian security or its  commitment to NATO, but neither can they be easily dismissed. They surely bear some watching. 

There is one primary conclusion which emerges from this discussion.  Senior diplomats in the U.S. must actively speak up against the glorification of the totalitarian past, be it communist or fascist.  American policy should work towards keeping the  Baltic states firmly within the Atlantic alliance and encouraging the buildup of strategic highways and railroads to join the defense policies of all three states.  U.S. policy-makers and diplomats must develop a new, comprehensive framework for mitigating against the provocative occurrences that prevent the rapprochement of the Russian minorities in these countries with the Baltic peoples.

The events described by Rosenfeld only play into the hands of those in Moscow who would like to restore the Russian empire in the Baltics. 


1  Efraim Zuroff, “The Struggle Over Estonia’s History,” The Jerusalem Post ,  May 2, 2007.
2  “Aftermath of the Bronze Night,” from the Wikepedia Free Encyclopedia, p. 2., and   Interfax, April 27, 2007. Re   Retrieved: 2007-04-27
3  Ibid.,   pp, 9-10. [Emphasis added]. 

4  S. Wagstyl, "Russia Rail Move to Hit Estonia Supply Line."  Financial Times, May 3, 2007, p. 
5  Gary Peach, "Eu financial bosses praise Estonia,"  The Daily Caller, 9/20/2010, ``\financial-    bosses-praise-estonia/ 

6  Anatol Lieven,  The Baltic Revolution:  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1993)  p. 277.

7   We had the same impression  reading translated excerpts from Savisaar’s memoir,   Peaminister.   Edgar  Savisaar, Peaminister:  Eesti Lahiajalugu   199092, Tartu:  Kleio, 2004.
8    Op. cit, Anatol Lieven, p. 293.
9    Oscar Ida, Narva, (Narva, Sata, 2008) p. 4. 
10  Malle Salupere, Millenary Tartu:   The City of Youth and Good Ideas, (Tartu University Press, 2006) p. 10.
      Also, interview with  Malle Salupere, Tartu, July 7, 2010.  
11  Dainis Ivans, Voin pone vole  [Warrior Against his Will],  (Riga:  Vieda, 1996,) p. 95.
12  Interview with Dainis Ivans, Plavinhu Novads, Latvia, July 9, 2010.
13  Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals, (New Haven: Yale University Press,  2000) p. 205.
14  Op. Cit.  Salupere, p. 17.
15  Ibid.
16  Op. Cit., Anatol Lieven, p. 20.

17  Ibid.

18.  Op. Cit., Ivans, p. 95. 
19  Op. Cit. Anatol Lieven, p. 35.
20  Ibid  

21  Mart Laar, A Bird’s Eye View of Estonian History  (Grenader,  Mart Laar, 2007) p. 14 

22  Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York:  Basic Books, 2010)  p. 193-194.

23  Howard Jarvis et al, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (New York:  Dorling Kindersley, 2009) p. 137.

24. Andrei Sakharov, Moscow and Behond:  1986-1989 (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) p. 40.






Former Prime Mnister Edgar Savisaar.

Igor Rosenfeld is author of the must-read SPECIAL REPORT on Nazi episodes in Estonia.