I must confess I don’t know that much about Eastern Europe so a trip to the Baltics sounded like a good idea. It was a great choice. The Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) get their name from the Baltic Sea (see map). The three countries are small with populations between 1 million (Estonia) and 3 million (Lithuania). There is a long seafaring tradition in the region but the countries are also quite distinct. Estonia and Latvia are primarily Lutheran while Lithuania is mostly Catholic.
The terrain is quite flat but the capitals (Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius) all have fascinating old towns, interesting history museums and great food. You will find as much sushi and Thai in the Baltics as you will here in the United States but you will also find excellent smoked fish and hearty soups, with mushrooms a specialty. If you are there in the summer the Baltics have a thriving beach scene.
Politically, all three countries are independent and parliamentary democracies but this wasn’t always the case. The region has for centuries been fought over by Europe and Russia. The Russian Empire gained control of the present day Baltics in the mid-18th century and held them until the end of World War I when each country gained independence. Then with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop ‘Non-Aggression’ Pact in 1939, Germany and Russia carved up Eastern Europe. Russia gained control of the Baltics first but then in the early 1940’s the Germans carried out mass executions of Baltic Jews and others and finally the Russians came back at the end of World War II and held the region for 50 years.
In 1990 a phenomenal event occurred, the Singing Revolution. Two million people formed a human chain stretching 350 miles from Tallinn in Estonia to Vilnius in Lithuania singing for independence. They achieved this in the early 1990’s. The Baltic countries are now members of both the EU and NATO and as of January 1 the Euro is the currency in all three countries.
Russia is not pleased with all this. They see NATO as a distinct threat to their sovereignty and with both Estonia and Latvia still having about a quarter of their population native Russian speakers, a situation similar to Ukraine could develop. There have been numerous airspace incursions by the Russians recently. Everyone is nervous.
Economically the Baltics suffered in 2008 but they have made budget corrections and are recovering today. Estonia is the strongest of the three. They have a vibrant tech sector and in fact Skype was started by an Estonian. Almost all government functions are now done online. Every Estonian has a web account which tracks healthcare spending and taxes are filed over the internet. Even voting is done electronically.
Russia is still a major factor in the region. A significant number of tourists, especially summer ones who frequent the Baltic beaches, are Russian and many Russians have property in the Baltics. As mentioned earlier 25% of Estonians and Latvians are of Russian ancestry and speak Russian at home. After independence in 1991 Estonia and Latvia did not grant immediate citizenship to these Russians. They required them to learn the local language and take a test on local history. Originally one third of Latvians in the early 1990’s were without citizenship. This number is now down to about 12%. But still, a significant portion of the population is pro-Russia.
The Baltics rely on their eastern neighbor for most of their energy (see chart). This may change soon however. Lithuania has just installed an offshore liquefied natural gas storage vessel which will process non-Russian energy. If all works as planned the facility will produce enough natural gas for the entire Baltic region. My take is, add the Baltics to your travel list. It is well worth the trip.