A little more than 30 years ago, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania demonstrated their sense of unity and brotherhood of. During the Baltic Way, a peaceful political demonstration for freedom in autumn 1989, more than one million people stood shoulder to shoulder in line that ran the 675 kilometres between the three Baltic capitals – Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn – to garner international support for their democratic ideals and values. Some Estonians even argue that, metaphorically, the Baltic Way put the first cracks in the Berlin Wall, referring both to the fall of the guarded barrier that divided the city from 1961 to 1989, and to the transformation of Soviet bloc countries into democratic Western societies.
Thirty years after the Baltic Way, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have once again demonstrated the strength of their friendship and cooperation following the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. In May 2020, as other countries closed their borders to prevent the virus from spreading, the Baltic countries lifted mutual travel restrictions to enable free movement of people within the region, without the need for self-isolation. The launch of the so-called “Baltic travel bubble” was welcomed by Estonians and by EU institutions, which encouraged other member states to follow this example.
Similarly, since March, the political leaders of the Baltic countries have repeatedly stressed the importance of close cooperation with one another, Poland, and other nearby European countries in fighting the pandemic. The health ministers of all three Baltic countries have reaffirmed their intention to provide mutual assistance to national health systems, as well as to work together to cope with future outbreaks. And, thanks to their joint efforts, the Baltic countries brought home their citizens who had been trapped on the German-Polish border following virus-related border closures. In this respect, the coronavirus crisis helped unite the Baltic countries.
However, the advent of the second wave of the pandemic in autumn 2020 has seriously challenged this unity. On 12 September, Latvia announced that – due to the high and increasing rates of coronavirus infections in Estonia and Lithuania – it would require visitors from those countries to self-isolate for two weeks. This seemed to be a perfectly reasonable decision, given that a large proportion of new coronavirus cases in Latvia come from Estonia, as well as other countries. Nevertheless, Estonians were confused by Latvia’s justification for its decision: the country’s health minister, Ilze Vinkele, said that Estonia and Lithuania had unilaterally changed the regulations the three countries had agreed upon in spring, without informing the Latvian government. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu responded that Estonia had informed Latvia about its decision to resume flights to countries affected by the coronavirus –and that, several days later, Latvia had made a similar decision to ease flight restrictions. The incident has made some Estonians wonder whether the Baltic countries have lost the spirit of the Baltic Way.
Meanwhile, the Baltic states have had little success in their attempts to engage in closer cooperation with Finland, Denmark, and Sweden in response to the pandemic (they have not tried to cooperate with Poland in the same way, due to the relatively high infection rate in Poland and the sides’ complicated political relationship). Despite their best efforts, the Baltic states have been left on their own in coronavirus cooperation.
Nevertheless, Estonia and Latvia have recently reached a consensus on other urgent practical issues. For example, largely due to their mutual business interests and cultural linkages, the countries have not applied quarantine requirements to residents of Valga and Valka who travel between the two border towns. This seems to signal that, even during crises, the Baltic countries are aware that they are stronger and more visible in the international arena when they address problems together.
Like other states, the Baltic countries will continue to face serious challenges posed by the spread of covid-19. One of these relates to the need to restore the Baltic bubble as soon as possible. This is important for many reasons, including economic interests and the psychological effect of its absence.
During the second wave, the medical situation in all three Baltic countries is changing quickly and, therefore, demands some flexibility from them to adequately handle the crisis. At the same time, the Baltic countries need to take a broad view of how to solve the crisis together – and to do so without undermining their unity. For instance, they require a unified approach to travel restrictions, testing requirements, and responses to a rise in the infection rate.
Estonia has called upon the health experts of the three Baltic countries to develop a common model for dealing with the crisis – one that accounts for the fact that we will likely have to live with the pandemic for some time to come. By combining their resources and knowledge to address this challenge, the Baltic countries would improve their chances of success. With so many people’s lives at stake, it is time for the Baltic countries to stand shoulder to shoulder once more.
Viljar Veebel is researcher of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in International Relations and a doctoral degree in political science (Ph.D.) from the University of Tartu.
This is the third of three commentaries in a series focusing on the Baltic countries’ experiences of and cooperation during the coronavirus crisis.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.