Edward Lucas: Better Baltic Cooperation, Regional Public Services Are Best Hedges Against Geopolitical Risks ({{commentsTotal}})

Source: (Photo: Courtesy of Edward Lucas)

ERR News interviewed The Economist's international editor, Edward Lucas, at a recent conference at Cambridge University on the future of the Baltic countries. Lucas has written extensively on the Baltics and Eastern Europe and is the author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West" and "Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West."

You've said that Baltics have in some ways educated Europe? How so?

I think that for many years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, just as for many years before it as well, there was a feeling of ignorance in Western Europe from the so-called East European's point of view. You felt you were occupied, but you weren't part of the Soviet Union. If we thought about you at all, we referred to you as the Soviet Baltic republics. And I think also after 1991 there was a feeling that the Balts should be quiet and grateful for having escaped from the Kremlin's empire. When they complained about things going wrong in Russia, people thought this was scaremongering, so it was heavily discounted. And obviously sometimes it was scaremongering; after all, Baltic politicians, like everybody else, say stupid things.

Still, basically the Baltic analysis of the way Russia is going has been proved correct - that this was a hybrid regime of criminal and Chekist ex-KGB; that it is bad for Russia and it's bad for the neighbors. Russia is constantly provoking, undermining, subverting its neighbors. And now we see this in Sweden and Finland as well.

There's now much greater understanding in the West. It's not a complete understanding, but there is an realization that Russia is a real problem and that we have frontline states, which include the Baltic states, and we have to defend them. NATO has to do territorial defense. This is a huge change. In 2003-2004, when NATO was expanding, they said we're not even going to have contingency plans. Now we've got contingency plans and we're having an exercise. We have several exercises.

Such as Steadfast Jazz?

Steadfast Jazz is a turning point. It's too small and there's many things to criticize about it, but there will be others. It's breaking a kind of taboo in NATO that you don't do exercises in the new member states. Nor are they small exercises - this is a big, land, live-fire exercise in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which together comprise NATO's most vulnerable corner. Now, they can say as often as they like this is not practising territorial defense for these countries, but actually it is, de facto.

I also think the EU's woken up. For years you've been suffering from Russian energy blackmail and trade wars. Now the EU's really taken that up. They're busting Gazprom, they see the danger that Gazprom presents to the internal market. They are pushing back hard against Russia in the Eastern Partnership countries. At the moment it looks like […] Russia gets Armenia and Belarus; the EU's going to win Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova; and Azerbaijan doesn't really care, because they've got oil. But that's still a pretty good result compared with five years ago.

What is the biggest threat posed by Russia?

The single biggest threat is Russian dirty money. Russian dirty money going to political parties, politicians' personal pockets, think tanks, academia and NGOs. And then also Russian clean money. Russia doing deals with companies in EU countries with the result that the company says we have this big deal with Russia - politicians please don't jeopardize it. I think it's easier to cope with the clean money. The dirty money comes with a sort of heavy load of intelligence connections and manipulation and information gathering and information warfare, which makes it more difficult.

What are the biggest hopes for the Vilnius Summit?

The Vilnius Summit's aim is to try and get deep and comprehensive free trade agreements with as many of the Eastern Partnership countries as possible. And what I think would be very good is if we could get visas. Visas are tremendously important. Visas allow you to do a kind of bypass around the difficulties you get with governments. I don't particularly like the Ukrainian government, I don't particularly like the Georgian government, I do like the Moldovan government. In all cases I would say, let's do everything we can unilaterally on the visas because that's encouraging the people-to-people contact. It's part of our soft power contest with Russia. We want people in those countries to feel they're European, that Europe wants them, Europe needs them, Europe likes them. And the best way you can do that is making it cheap, easy and non-humiliating to get to the EU.

Has there been enough cooperation between the Baltic countries themselves?

I think it's a huge weakness. Intra-Baltic cooperation is still really poor. And you see this particularly in energy. It's a real scandal. You've been faffing around for 20 years on energy. I would say it's incomprehensible to the outsider. It's a real pity. If the three Baltic states between them had made better decisions earlier on, energy prices would be lower and Russian influence would be less. And obviously the blame lies with the Baltic political class, but it's because they're too ambitious, too smug, too weak and in each country you can see things that are wrong. The fact is that the people of the Baltic states have suffered as a result of their political class's incompetence.

How could they improve things right now?

Rail Baltic would be a good project. The EU has offered to pay for 80 percent of the railway's construction. I think getting the power grid built from Poland is a very important. Power, rail and gas links with Poland all introduce resilience into the network.

[...] Implementing the Third Energy Package, which Lithuania has done but Latvia for example hasn't done so fast.

Trying to come to an agreement on the LNG terminal.

I think the nuclear power thing is almost hopeless. It's so politically difficult. Perhaps if you'd locked the three prime ministers together in a room and said you can't come out, then you'd have a deal that would guarantee that this thing's going to be built.

So there's endless practical projects, many of which have been very neglected in the last few years.

Regarding projects like Rail Baltic, wouldn't better connectedness be an important part of improving the economy? I think many are still puzzled by how wages are so much higher in Finland, despite its proximity to Estonia.

The big question in the Baltic states now is to have high quality public services, particularly outside big cities. I think it's going to take a long time to match wages and before GDP per head converges.

But the really big national security threat in the Baltic states now is not Russia - it's depopulation. And the reason why you get depopulation is not just because wages are higher in the West, it's also because public services are so bad in, particularly, small towns and villages and particularly in Latvia and Lithuania. I'm not saying it's perfect in Estonia, but Estonia has done a better job of having good quality public services outside big cities. So this is health, education, transport, criminal justice, all these basic government services. And if you can provide those at a reasonably high quality and, even more important, of increasing quality, so people see that things are getting better, then that sharply diminishes the need to emigrate.

There's people who say, I don't want to bring my child up in a place where education is rubbish and health care is bad, where we can't get anywhere because the roads are bad or there's no buses or the buses are very bad, and there's no rail; and I'm better off living in the West.

NOTE: A transcription error in the first sentence of the answer to the first question has been corrected.