René Nyberg: The Baltic as an Interface Between the EU and Russia

Deputy Director General Head of Division for Eastern Affairs Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland VI International Council for Central and East European Studies World Congress 29 June 2000 Tampere

Paradoxically the loss of the outer and inner Soviet empires have made Russia a much more European state than the Soviet Union ever was. The European Union, and indeed Euroland, is only 1,000 km away from Moscow, a mere 200 km from St. Petersburg, "The Northern Capital" as St. Pete is again being affectionately called.

Even after the contraction of the space ruled by Moscow, north-west is the direction where the Russian heartland is closest to the outside world. Today Russia borders one member state of the Union – Finland. In the foreseeable future the Union will gain four new members bordering Russia. These are Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Some day, hopefully, the EU will even gain a fifth new member sharing a border with Russia, i.e. Norway. The Baltic Sea and Northeastern Europe fringing it is where we can discern the geographical finalité of the European Union.

The post-Soviet space can show very few success stories. The Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are the only ones that come to mind, consolidated and firmly set on a path of European integration. Compared with the rest of the CIS states against any criteria, Russia herself is a country of reforms and economic opportunity that attracts immigrants from all over the CIS.

Today, all of Russia’s borders constitute growing fault lines for different reasons. Only on its border with the EU and its future member states is the gap growing to the disadvantage of Russia. The essence of the chasm at the western border of Russia is the risk of being cut off from the dynamism of the enlarging EU and having to face self-inflicted isolation behind a growing normative divide.

Despite a history of invasions from the West, west is today the only benign direction for Moscow. West is also the direction of Russian exports that have during the past ten years secured Russia a hefty annual trade surplus. The Russia of today is much more dependent on foreign trade than the Soviet Union ever was. An exceptionally high part of Russian GDP is generated by foreign trade. Forty per cent of her trade goes to the EU, and the share will rise to fifty per cent after the enlargement of the Union. Russian gas will never heat – or cool – American homes.

The centre of Russian economic gravity lies clearly in the west. Russia has come to know the "Rotterdam syndrome", being dependent on ports outside her sovereign control. The Baltic ports, non-Russian and Russian alike, are critical gateways for exports and imports. Attempts to resist interdependence, this most European of phenomena, echo Soviet autarky thinking.

Russia remains the challenge for the enlarging Union. It is clear by now and after the G-8 Summit that Putin’s Russia will not try to turn her eyes towards the East in search of an Eurasian option that does not exist. In other words, Russia has made her choice. That choice is trade and co-operation with the European Union and the West in general. It is a rational choice as it reflects the reality of the Russian economy.


Russia is agonising about her lost glory. It is painful to admit that the Soviet Union lost the very peace it had achieved at such an enormous cost. Russian society is torn between its own rhetoric and the stark reality of the land. It is painful to come to grips with one’s past. Vergangenheitsbewältigung or rather the lack of it explains many problems. But without facing its own history a nation cannot face the future.

European post war history is a history of reconciliation. And its success is based on this very reconciliation. According to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the eastward enlargement of the EU is an essential part of German reunification. Enlargement would not only constitute an act of historic justice and increase the stability of Germany, but it would in the negative case be a blow to the whole idea of European integration.

EU enlargement is, indeed, essential for the future stability of Europe and the eastward enlargement is an indispensable continuation of Finland’s emancipation. Finland has a vested interest to see that also the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland become a part of the European Union and that a contiguous land connection is established to the continental Union.

It is not difficult to foresee that the inauguration of the Öresund bridge and the drive to build the next bridge over the Fehmarn Belt from Denmark to Germany will also give a boost to plans to construct a tunnel under the Gulf of Finland. A Trans-European train connection Helsinki - Tallinn - Riga - Vilnius - Warsaw - Berlin – why not?

European emancipation will never be the success story we want it to be without Russian integration with European structures. But the future of European integration will also be affected by the ability of Russia to reconcile herself with her own past and with the past she shares with her neighbours.

The only surviving original of the secret additional protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 did after all, despite repeated Soviet denials of its very existence, surface from the General Secretary’s archive. I have seen it with my own eyes exhibited in Moscow with Stalin’s signature written large in blue ink on a German military map.

Katyn remains the key to Russian-Polish relations. That the Fenno-Russian drama eventually led to reconciliation was never preordained nor was it guaranteed. Even Gorbachev could never bring himself to admit that Russia had attacked. It was left to Yeltsin in 1992 to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial in Helsinki and pronounce the little words -- I am sorry --, words taken to heart by the Finnish nation.

It is from the vantage point of a reconciled neighbour of Russia that Finland watches with apprehension the recurring tensions in Baltic-Russian relations. Some of the rhetoric is evidently tactical in order to divert attention from real problems. Some of it addresses issues that are in the process of being settled under the relentless pressure created – not by Russian intervention – but rather by European integration.

The cause of friction between the Baltic States and Russia is political and historical despite its legalistic veneer and moralistic undertones. It is the wrong done to the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian nations through their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940.

To add insult to injury, the person who was ordered in August 1940 to recommend to the Supreme Soviet that it accept the application of the Estonian puppet government to join the "family of Soviet peoples" was no other than Otto Vilgelmovich Kuusinen. He had failed to carry out Stalin’s previous order to preside over the "Popular Government of Finland" created after the Soviet attack in November 1939. Kuusinen was an ethnic Finn – a wannabe Quisling before Quisling -- who survived Stalin and died in 1964 as a member of Khrushchev’s presidium-cum-politburo without having set foot again on Finnish soil despite an abortive attempt to participate at the 40th anniversary of the Finnish Communist party in 1958. Kuusinen is buried in the Kremlin wall.

The basic cause of rancour is not the fate of the Russophone population of Latvia and Estonia, who are economically far better off than most Russians living in Russia or the Russians in the CIS diaspora. It is Russia’s difficulty in admitting yet another Winter War or Katyn despite the fact that Yeltsin and the Russian intelligentsia did so in the early days of democratic Russia.


Finnish history has in many ways caught up with Swedish history. Sweden almost bled white in her conflicts with Russia. Today Finland and Sweden share a deeply ingrained tradition of caution in their relations with Russia. Historically this is reminiscent of the Prussian experience lost after Bismarck. A reference could also be made to Atatürk. This basic disposition has, at times, forced the neighbour to arrange itself with Russia, but today this tradition is at a premium in dealing with the Baltic Sea region, which has become the interface between the EU and Russia.

Unlike the Central European countries, Russia has so far not been able to profit from the closeness of her dynamic neighbours. Nokia has eight factories in China, none in Russia. Mathematicians are recruited from all over the world, India, China, Israel and Hungary, but strangely enough not very often from Russia. Electronic component firms wanting to establish themselves in St. Petersburg, in order to profit from the considerable scientific muscle of the city, are frustrated by red tape. The city of Viborg, the largest city in the Leningrad oblast and Finland’s second city before the war, has been degraded into a bazaar of cheap petrol and liquor, prostitution and pirate recordings. This very same fault line can be observed at the Estonian-Russian border, on the River Narva, across which two fortresses, one built by the Teutonic Knights and the other by Ivan III, still face each other.


For the first time, a genuine interest in the European Union can be seen in Russia. By far the most important outcome to date of the EU’s Common Strategy on Russia, was the decision by the Russian Government to respond with a Russian strategy for co-operation with the EU. This document was presented by then Prime Minister Putin at the EU-Russia Summit in Helsinki last October.

Despite efforts to reassess Russia’s place in the world the political elite is still plagued by what could be called "euroignorance" and by an insufficient understanding of the whole process of integration. The Role of Russia in European integration has never been really discussed in Moscow. Do we in the EU have a clearer picture? The Partnership and Co-operation Agreement which forms the legal basis of EU-Russia relations sets a free-trade agreement as one of the main goals. This is a tall order for both parties, comparable to the eastward enlargement of the Union.

The northward enlargement of the European Union through the accession of Finland and Sweden gave the Union a new look. The 1997 Finnish initiative on a Northern Dimension for the policies of the Union was an attempt to describe the changed situation of the expanding Union as a neighbour of Russia – an attempt to view the upcoming eastward enlargement from a Northern European standpoint.

It is by no means easy to influence the development of Russian political thinking. A vestige of the past is the continued prevalence of a view of the EU as a kind of free-trade organisation operating in the shadow of NATO. Another is to recognise only the political character of the Union without understanding the dynamics of the deepening integration – the Single Market, the EMU, Schengen etc..

Only very gradually and very hesitantly is Moscow coming to acknowledge the fact that the expanding EU is thoroughly and profoundly changing Europe. The deeply entrenched perception of NATO as the enemy colours every analysis. Geopolitics still takes precedence over geoeconomics.

Recently one of President Putin´s top economic advisors, Vladimir Mau floated the idea that Russia should strive to fulfil the Maastricht and Copenhagen criteria, not in order to join the Union but in order to be able to integrate with European structures.

The following six events that have influenced Russia’s perception of Europe and the world are instructive:

· Finland’s membership of the European union made Russia a geographical neighbour of the EU. By joining the European Union Finland extricated itself from the Russian sphere of influence to which it had been consigned under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact;

· The 1997 invitation to Estonia, as the first ex-republic of the Soviet Union, to enter into negotiations on accession to the EU was registered with keen interest in Moscow;

· The introduction of the euro in 1999, and especially the decision of the Germans to give up the Deutschmark, had a profound impact and rocked the very foundations of the traditional geopolitical approach;

· The shock of Kosovo is still being felt and is once again complicating determination of the true weight of the European Union;

· The introduction of a European security and defence policy shows yet again that progressive European integration is in fact a moving target and does not fit neatly into traditional categories of thought;

· And, finally China’s steps towards membership of the WTO clearly demonstrate to Moscow the progress China has made in the area of economic reform.


Russia´s proposal last June to discuss the consequences of EU enlargement for Kaliningrad in the context of the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement took the Union by surprise. It was followed in September by Russia’s very positively formulated response to the EU initiative on the Northern Dimension. Then Prime Minister Putin characterised Kaliningrad as a pilot when he presented Russia’s Strategy for the EU in Helsinki in October.

A lot of the credit goes to Lithuania. I am convinced that it was the astute and well-considered approach of the Lithuanian Government that convinced Moscow to revise its policy towards Kaliningrad. The problems of Kaliningrad can be put on the table in Brussels only at Moscow’s initiative.

Kaliningrad is in many respects the flashpoint of the Baltic Sea region and at the same time a microcosm of the problems of Russian society. If Kaliningrad is a pilot, it is also a test: a Russian exclave to become an EU enclave. The upcoming gubernatorial elections in November are already being felt in Kaliningrad. The most difficult and probably the most likely issue to create tension is the question of transit to and from metropolitan Russia. This is no minor problem as it directly affects the Union’s future external border regime.

Despite demands for special arrangements by the Russian authorities and well-meaning Western academic advice, there can be no derogation from the Schengen acquis. Notwithstanding the differences, the Fenno-Russian border remains the only relevant comparison to the future common border of the Union with Russia in Kaliningrad.

As the guardian of the only EU-Russia border, Finland claims that the existing border regime has proven its worth. It is both flexible and secure. It will be adapted to Schengen when Finland and the other members of the Nordic Passport Union start to implement Schengen rules in March 2001. It should come as no surprise that Finland will demand that all acceding countries sharing a common border with Russia adopt a border regime on a par with her own.

Kaliningrad might be the immediate test, but St Petersburg is the key to a European future for Russia. Most western ideas and innovations that have entered Russia during the last 300 years have done so through St Petersburg. The end of communist rule saw a lot of energy set free in the city, but hélas so far it has mostly been in the form of a steady brain drain to Moscow.

St Petersburg still suffers from eighty years of neglect and ostracism and a recently required reputation for rampant crime. Instead of turning its attention to the wide open world, both near and far, the city has too long been fixated on Moscow.

St. Petersburg is still the largest metropolis in the Baltic Sea area. The city is a gateway to the enlarging EU. It has the only major Russian port in the Baltic and a highly skilled labour force. Its scientific and cultural assets are considerable. But as President Tarja Halonen noted in June in her dinner speech in the Kremlin, they are a dormant resource. St. Petersburg, Russia´s Northern Capital, has advantages which Russia cannot disregard in her evolving relationship with the European Union.

Vladimir Maus’s observation that Russia should strive to fulfil the Maastricht and Copenhagen criteria puts it in a nutshell. Only by adopting European norms and standards and Western business practices will Russia have a chance to extricate herself from being only an exporter of energy and raw materials and attract indispensable foreign investment. The alternative would be to see the economic and social fault lines deepen and the country fall back into isolation behind a growing normative divide and also a digital divide. This would at the end threaten European stability.