On 1 July 2013, Lithuania assumed Presidency of the European Council. The position rotates every six months, often garnering little attention. The same goes for Lithuania, one of three (from north to south: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) in the collectively-known Baltic region. It is a domain usually neglected in historical and political education and discussion that is currently most well-known for its lanky but lean track and field athletes.
The Baltic states each have maintained a precarious national culture despite centuries of imperial influence from the Prussian-Germans to the south and Russian-Soviets to the east. Linguistically, Estonians, due to geographic proximity, contain Finnish loanwords and is part of the Uralic language family that surprisingly also houses Hungarian. Latvian and Lithuanian are both Indo-European, with the latter being influenced by German and Polish due to historical ties and conquests. The Baltic states experienced a fleeting independence after the First World War, only to be annexed once again by the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939. Lithuania was especially diplomatically troublesome as its capital, Vilnius, had been under Polish control prior to the start of the Second World War. In order to have Vilnius restored to Lithuanian rule, the Lithuanian government had to grant the establishment of Soviet military basses throughout Lithuanian in the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty of 10 October 1939. Two days after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, on 24 June 1941, Lithuania fell under Nazi German rule only to be restored under Soviet authority as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic in the latter half of 1944.
To fully appreciate the Baltic independence developments from the late 1980s to 2004 when all three states gained membership into NATO and the European Union, it would be imperative to understand early Soviet language policies under Lenin and Stalin. The language policies of Lenin had to confront asymmetrical literacy (from the Baltic to Central Asia), underdeveloped or unadaptable orthographies, as well as nation-building. Yet, it had to be Stalin to resolve the most pressing question of when (if at all) national issues could be subordinated under class issues. The struggle of the nationalities question was aggravated by the Soviet Union’s simultaneous efforts of state-sponsored migration of Soviet military/intellectual families to these satellites thereby severely skewing local demographics. Fast forward to the 1980s, with the contraction of Soviet dominance, the Baltic states immediately began drafting citizenship laws and preparing for integration with Western Europe. The level of stringency was in positive relation to the proportion of ethnic Russians in the overall population – Latvia and Estonia with around 30 per cent and Lithuania with around 8 per cent. Estonia was able to develop a multicultural education system rooted in parental choice in language instruction early on, as Latvia passed state laws in the early 1990s only granting citizenship to those who were Latvian prior to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and their descendants. This left a third of the Latvian population suddenly stateless and without certain legal rights and representation. This outright application of jus sanguinis is contrasted with Lithuania’s approach of a blanket citizenship policy in that its mere 8 per cent of ethnic Russians would be automatically granted Lithuanian citizenship given their permanent residence is within Lithuania at time of (re)independence. Latvia, however, was obstinate in the first couple of years, only allowing naturalization (and legal rights to run for office) should minorities pass a series of Latvian language exams. By 1998, Latvia edited its citizenship laws in 1998 allowing children born in Latvia after 21 August 1991 to be naturalized as Latvian Citizens. Latvia’s attempts to join NATO was rebuked by the Kremlin-associated think-tank, the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, claiming that “NATO cannot accept into its ranks countries with unresolved problems with minorities and borders.” The October 1999 Tampere European Council noted the need for protection of these “third-country nationals” with a long-term goal of providing permanent residents with “uniform rights which are as near as possible to those enjoyed by EU citizens.” In 2002, the landmark case Podkolzina v. Latvia was brought up to the European Court of Human Rights regarding the unfair disqualification of Ingrida Podkolzina, an ethnic Russian, from running for office in Latvia even after passing her Latvian language exams. The Court’s judgment on 9 April 2002 concluded that only a neutral, third-party can disqualify candidates from running for office and awarded Podkolzina 9,000 lats in damages. Most notably, Latvia responded immediately by reforming its 1998 Citizenship law, making tests in Latvian language and history easier to apply for and eradicating excessive application fees. Latvia’s openness to reform was commended at the NATO meeting in Reykjavik on 14-15 May 2002 and the Baltic states successfully joined NATO in its fifth round of enlargement on 29 March 2004. Just over a month later, the trio, with their noted cooperation with European norms and values, joined the European Union on 1 May 2004 after a decade-long campaign.
And another decade afterward, Lithuania’s presidency of the European Council is driven by the slogan: credible, growing and open Europe. The first in the Baltic family to hold leadership of one of the legislative institutions of the European Union, Lithuania has an array of ambitions to fulfill or set in motion in the next six months. In Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Vytautas Leskevicius’s speech to the European Parliament Committee Chairmen Conference in Strasbourg on 12 June 2013, the fundamental concern was for Lithuanian leadership to “built on our ability to ensure financial stability and sound public finances.” A second priority was set to promote “a growing Europe” in which job creation would increase European competitiveness and the EU would support the growth of small and medium-enterprises (SMEs). Finally, an “open” Europe welcomes Croatia into the family as it prepares to strengthen negotiations and dialogues with Turkey and the rest of the Balkan countries.
Vice-Minister Leskevicius concluded his speech reminding audiences that “2013 is the European Year of the Citizen, and we are once again reminded of our common responsibility to the people of Europe.” For a country in a region fractured and tossed with a mélange of foreign cultures and intertwined histories, Lithuania’s profound and diverse agenda for the EU reinforces the notion of progress through unity.