This is my second visit to Lithuania and there are clear signs of progress in the four years since I was last here. The last twenty five years have a remarkable period of transformation. The Soviet times of perpetual shortages and long lines for essential goods seem light years away, although they are well remembered by my wife and her generation. Meanwhile, a younger generation has reached adulthood with no personal experience of the Soviet period, relying entirely on stories told by their parents. In Vilnius, Kaunas and the resort town of Palanga, the young seems indistinguishable from the young in Western Europe, or indeed, Australia. There are common tastes in popular music and the same constant gazing at their iphones.
The largest supermarket chain, Maxima , started just after independence, is on the same level as Coles and Woolworth. Joined by smaller concerns, such as chains Iki and Rimi, they are evidence of Lithuania in transition to a level of consumer choice and prosperity, once unimaginable to older generations. New houses reflect this new prosperity for many if by no means for all. A son of one of my wife’s old friends has built a new home about twelve kilometres from the Kaunas city centre. You could equate this the ‘quarter acre’ block, so much a feature of Australian life. Around him, other young adults are building similar houses.
Still, the average income is still lower than in Western Europe. Many would be considered poor by Western European standards. Over the past twenty five years, the transition from communism has been inevitably painful. The massive misallocation of resources, typical of the old Soviet economy, meant that many factories, purely dependent on a ‘market’ elsewhere in the old Soviet Union, became instantly redundant, resulting in widespread job losses. In the old Soviet Union, everybody was guaranteed employment, but apart from the Communist Party elite, the average wage was poverty level, measured in terms of average incomes in Western economies. Yes, Lithuania is still a work in progress, but as one old friend of my wife remarked to me, after living in the United States for five years, she notices how Lithuania has progressed during her five year absence.
Enjoyment of the present is very much the preoccupation of the many Lithuanians I have met. Yet there is a sense of unease in the background. Almost everywhere flags are flown, the European Union flag flies alongside the Lithuanian flag. For Lithuanians, the choice between renewed Russian imperial ambitions and the European Union is binary. The European Union offers at least a measure of security. Unlike Germany, Britain and France, Lithuania, along with other Eastern European countries, is a net financial beneficiary of the European Union. Criticism of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the European Union is at best muted. Lithuania feels impelled to accept the dictate of Brussels and accept its quota of so-called “refugees’’. The optimistic expectation is that not too many will want to come to Lithuania or the other Baltic states.
Brexit will not only punch a huge financial hole in the European Union but is likely to be the beginning of the end of the whole European project. Sooner or later, ordinary European voters, still loyal to their respective national states, will revolt against the elitist push for a European superstate, run by an antidemocratic permanent bureaucratic caste. Friends of democracy and freedom may rightly applaud the popular rejection of the elites. The problem, unfortunately, is that Russia will also applaud the end of the Euro-Federalist project in pursuit of its geopolitical ambitions. The Baltic states are potentially the biggest losers if and when the end of the European project unless farsighted countermeasures are put in place.
Christopher Carr: Bearish on Freedom
Thus the role of the United States was and will remain crucial to the security and freedom of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. In the context of the NATO alliance, the US has always done the heavy lifting. Donald Trump’s demand that the European allies should contribute more to their own defence has some validity, but his implied threat that the America might not automatically come to their aid if attacked reflects a worrying level of blustering ignorance of geopolitical reality. Indeed, many Lithuanians regard Trump as a dangerous fool, even if they have little or no confidence in Hillary Clinton. Does Trump threaten to squander Ronald Reagan’s greatest achievement, the Liberation of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States?
For what it is worth, I offer my blueprint for future policy by the United States and the United Kingdom, led respectively by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which did more than anything to win the Cold War.
The fostering of a special relationship between the English-speaking democracies, the Baltic states and other former captive nations of the Soviet Empire is the one great project which could supercede the failing European Union. Only the English-speaking democracies have truly invested moral capital in the freedom and independence of the former captive nations.
In the context of this special relationship, a number of practical steps should be undertaken:
- The agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration with both Poland and the Czech Republic for the installation of anti-missile defence systems should be revived.
- There should be a clear and unambiguous declaration that any attack on the Baltic States, or the other former Eastern European captive nations, is an attack on the United States. This declaration should be in addition to the formal provisions of N.A.T.O.
- Given that Germany is no longer on the frontline, as during the Cold War years, the United States should close its military bases in Germany and move them to the Baltic States and other Eastern European countries.
In answer to those who might object that such moves might provoke conflict with Russia, the greater risk is that Moscow could be tempted to pursue a more overtly aggressive posture in the belief that a weaker or more isolationist United States will not be willing to respond. Leaving no room for miscalculation by any potential aggressor is the best prospect for peace and stability.