The Dynamic Baltic Sea Region by René Nyberg, on 30 March 2000

Translation René Nyberg, Ambassador Head of Division for Eastern Affairs Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland Greifswald, 30 March 2000


The ten years since the fall of the Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union have shown that the Baltic Sea region has embarked on a period of rapid economic growth and is also the most stable region of the new Europe. Willy Brandt’s words "what belongs together is now growing together" are true of the Baltic as well. The economic and social achievements of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are no accident and cannot be explained only by their proximity to the Nordic states and Germany.

Not without good reason did the former Foreign Minister and present President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, use the term "the new Nordics" to characterise the Baltic states at a meeting of the Nordic, Baltic and Russian foreign ministers in St. Petersburg in May 1999.

The reemergence of the seemingly long-lost paradigms of the littoral states of the Baltic and the reestablishment of ties built on the natural links to the opposite coast have also completely changed the context of the European Union’s relationship with Russia. As the German diplomat and historian Jürgen von Alten stated in his perceptive book Weltgeschichte der Ostsee, this represents a return to normality after the success of efforts to overcome the abnormal state of affairs wrongly considered "normal" for so long.

The earliest endeavours – the Council of the Baltic Sea States, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and bilateral assistance programs and agreements such as the Finnish-Russian agreement on cross-border cooperation – were attempts to tackle the most critical problems and dispel the most pressing fears.

Their success is obvious, although it has not been evenly distributed. I am thinking first and foremost of the rebirth of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as the unleashing of Poland’s dynamic potential. Although Russia, too, is a completely different country now than it was ten years ago, a country that has passed the point of no return, Russia has not yet experienced the stable development of Central Europe. A sustainable modern economy cannot be built without the rule of law, and Russia still has a long way to go.

As a consequence, Russia, with its now very limited share of the Baltic Sea coast along the Gulf of Finland and the Kaliningrad exclave, represents the greatest challenge to the expanding European Union – and not only in the Baltic Sea region.

Northeastern Europe is where we can already discern the final external boundary of the EU. Today Russia borders one Member State of the Union, Finland, and in the foreseeable future it will adjoin four more new members of the EU – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Some day, hopefully, it will border a fifth new Member State as well, namely Norway.

Nowhere does Russia’s heartland lie as close to the outside world as in the northwestern part of this enormous country. It goes without saying that Russia’s second most important city, St. Petersburg, can hardly be termed peripheral, although it is practically a border city. Precisely this is the essence of the challenge to both sides. Today, forty percent of Russia’s exports are destined for the European Union. After the Union’s eastward enlargement, this share will rise to fifty percent. Over half of all Russian seagoing transports pass through the Baltic Sea. Latvia’s ports in particular play a prominent role. Sixty percent of all investment in Russia stems from the EU Member States. American homes will never be heated with Russian gas. In other words, Russia is far more dependent on exports to Europe and transit through the Baltic Sea than the Soviet Union ever was. A considerable economic interdependency thus exists between the EU and Russia, a phenomenon that is profoundly European, for it is conducive to cooperation.

One of the most important achievements of the 1990s is the establishment of direct contacts with the Russian provinces, the constituent parts of the Russian Federation. The legitimation of an interregional dialogue – a dialogue that formerly could only be carried on via Moscow, if at all – was one of the key elements of the Finnish-Russian agreement on cross-border cooperation of January 1992.

After ten years, the limits and limitations of this approach are already very clearly visible. Regional cooperation in the context of the Council of the Baltic Sea States or in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, as well as along the long Finnish-Russian border, is still contingent on Moscow’s tolerance. While Russia is nominally a federation, its administrative structure, legislative process and political culture still bear strong features of a unitary state.

We can see this very well in the case of the city of St. Petersburg, which has focused its attention firmly on Moscow and to this very day, for instance, has profited to only a limited extent from the dynamic development of Finland’s IT sector, much less from the dynamism of Estonia and Latvia, where the emergence of the first so-called "EuroRussians" represents a significant new phenomenon. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in Kaliningrad, where the keys to the resolution of practically all problems lie in Moscow’s hands.

It would be completely erroneous to dismiss direct contacts as a dead-end street or a move in the wrong direction. But precisely here lies the challenge to the Union in defining its new relationship with Russia. Without an integration of Russia, Europe, too, will run great risks. We can already observe a great and deepening prosperity divide, not only along the Finnish-Russian border but also along Russia’s borders with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

With the swiftly progressing adoption of European norms and standards in the countries seeking accession to the EU, a normative divide is emerging – the normative force of the practical, so to speak – which poses serious obstacles to economic cooperation. These are exacerbated by a deep digital divide as well.

From the European standpoint, Russia must catch up or it will run the risk of falling back into a fateful isolation. This in turn would considerably heighten the risk of a radicalisation and destabilisation of Russian society.

So much for a description of the stage that has been set.


The northward enlargement of the European Union through the accession of Finland and Sweden gave the Union a new look. The 1997 Finnish initiative for a Northern Dimension for the policies of the EU 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. Acknowledged as the policies of the EU at the Cologne Summit in June 1999, the Northern Dimension describes this challenge in conjunction with the Union’s common strategy on Russia, which was adopted at the same time.

Pursuant to the resolutions adopted in Helsinki, the summit in the Portuguese city of Feira this coming June is to adopt a binding Action Plan for the Northern Dimension. As a consequence of the war in Chechnya, the strategy on Russia will be revised. Irrespective of this, the Union has achieved its initial goal.

It is by no means easy to influence the development of Russia’s political thought processes. One vestige of the past in Russia is the continued prevalence of a distorted view of Europe that perceives the EU as a kind of free trade organisation languishing in the shadow of NATO. 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, or, to use von Alten’s words, "unproductive geopolitical thinking" still takes precedence over geoeconomics.

For this reason, the following events that have influenced Russia’s perception of Europe and the world are instructive:

· Finland’s membership in the European Union made Russia a geographical neighbour of the EU. At the same time, Finland extricated itself once and for all from the Russian sphere of influence to which it had been consigned under the Hitler-Stalin 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 also registered with keen interest in Moscow.

· The introduction of the euro in 1999, and especially the decision of the Germans to give up the Deutsche Mark, 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 the determination of the true weight of the European Union.

· The introduction of a European security and defense 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 in the WTO clearly demonstrate to Moscow how much more progress China has made in the area of reform.


During the meeting of the EU Troika with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Bonn last June, Russia floated the harmless-sounding proposal to discuss the consequences of EU enlargement for Kaliningrad in the context of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. This was a real sensation and 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, and in October by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presentation in Helsinki of Russia’s response to the EU’s common strategy on Russia. As Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently put it, "... the ideas put forward by ... Putin in Helsinki document a considerable and very concrete Russian interest in the European Union which we welcome very much."

The dialogue between the EU and Russia has become more concrete in every respect. Hopefully we have thus been able to significantly lessen Moscow’s "Euroignorance" and, in the process, improve coordination between the Member States and European Commission, a feat of no minor importance.

Lithuania has demonstrated what European integration means to a small country. We have especially Lithuania to thank for the breakthrough in Kaliningrad. I personally am convinced that it was the astute and well-considered approach of the Lithuanian government that convinced Moscow to revise its policy towards Kaliningrad. In excellently prepared round-table discussions held in Lithuania from 1997 onward, which involved Russian and other international participants and were closed to the public, the subject of Kaliningrad was broached from the standpoint of both Moscow and Kaliningrad. Tension was high, many accusations were uncalled-for, and the expectations with regard to the Union were – as had been feared – unrealistic.

The economic crisis of August 1998 and the issues emerging in connection with the enlargement of the Union ultimately convinced Russia not only to discuss the problem of Kaliningrad with the EU but also to agree to the Lithuanian proposal to elaborate and present a joint Lithuanian-Russian proposal for projects for Kaliningrad in the context of the Union’s Northern Dimension. With this the EU’s first and most important basic condition was met: that the Kaliningrad problems be put on the table in Brussels only at Moscow’s initiative.

On 9 February 2000 the deputy foreign ministers of Lithuania and Russia, Vigaudas Ucaskas and Ivan Ivanov, signed a corresponding joint proposal in Nida on the Lithuanian side of the Courland Spit, not far from Thomas Mann’s country estate. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reaffirmed Russia’s great interest in the EU’s Northern Dimension, especially in connection with Kaliningrad, at the meeting with the EU Foreign Ministers’ Troika in Lisbon earlier this month.

I was in Brussels yesterday for a seminar on Kaliningrad. To my knowledge, at least three different conferences, symposia and seminars on Kaliningrad will be organised in the coming weeks and months, one of which will also take place in Kaliningrad. The most important event is the Kaliningrad conference in the context of the Northern Dimension, which will be hosted by Denmark in Copenhagen on 17 and 18 May. The Danish government assumed this obligation during the Foreign Ministers’ Conference on the Northern Dimension in Helsinki last fall.

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. The Russian exclave borders both Lithuania and Poland. It is crucial that Poland, as the largest candidate for accession, play the central role incumbent upon it in shaping the Baltic Sea region.

The future of Kaliningrad concerns the whole of Europe. Most of the issues can only be resolved in cooperation with Moscow. But the internal development of Kaliningrad, too, is important for the creation of the prerequisites for significant development programs and investments.

The gubernatorial elections coming up this fall will certainly also be coloured by the issue of a European future for Kaliningrad. Sound leadership of the province of Kaliningrad – leadership firmly anchored in Moscow but at the same time open-minded – is what Kaliningrad needs and what all the littoral states of the Baltic now dare to hope for.