Anatol Lieven was the only Western journalist permanently stationed in the Baltic states during the most dramatic years of their struggle for independence. He turned his experiences of reporting from all three Baltic countries during the tail end of the Soviet occupation and the first chaotic years of freedom into The Baltic Revolution, winner of the 1993 George Orwell prize for political writing and the first in-depth English-language account of the restoration of independence in the Baltic countries. He was in the Baltics from 1990 to 1993 as a correspondent for The Times, as part of a career that has taken him to Afghanistan, South Asia, Eastern Europe, the USA and the Middle East. His other books include Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism and Pakistan: A Hard Country.
Interview conducted by Will Mawhood
You were Moscow correspondent for The Times at the time you wrote The Baltic Revolution. What was it that led you to a special interest in the Baltic states?
As a matter of fact, I became correspondent in Moscow after I had spent three years in the Baltic States (including a number of shorter visits to the Caucasus). I arrived in Estonia in February 1990 and moved to Moscow in January 1993. Before going to the Baltic, I had been Times correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and after an accident there, was shipped back to hospital in England in September 1989 shortly before the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. I covered the revolution in Romania for The Times, and then decided to get ahead of the next revolution by moving to the Baltic States. This was partly a nose for the next big story, and partly because my father’s family had been German nobles from what is now Latvia and Estonia (my grandfather lived at Smiltene, and my great uncle, after whom I am named, at Mežotne), so there was a certain pull of my ancestry.
How closely have you followed their progress in the years since the book was published? Have you visited since?
I have visited on several occasions since, and have kept in as close touch as I can with developments; but since 9/11 I have been mainly involved in covering parts of the Muslim world, and especially my old beat in Pakistan and Afghanistan. My last book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, was a portrait and analysis of the Pakistani state and its battle against Islamist rebellion.
What has surprised you and what do you think you got right?
I expected a stronger reaction from Russia to the disenfranchisement of people who moved to Latvia and Estonia under Soviet rule (though that might well have come if these countries had not greatly modified their original citizenship laws under Western pressure) and to NATO membership for the Baltic States. Writing in 1993, I underestimated both the depth of Russia’s decline in the 1990s, and the cautious pragmatism of the Yeltsin and (initially at least) Putin administrations. Of course, a very harsh reaction did come later, but that has been against Georgia and Ukraine, and by then the Balts were safely in NATO and the EU – for whatever that may be worth in future.
One of the reasons that I exaggerated the likely Russian response was that I underestimated the passivity of the Russian-speaking population of Latvia and Estonia and the degree to which younger, potentially radical elements would leave for Western Europe or Russia – I feared the kind of reaction that we have seen in the Donbas.
Other than that, I think I got things right, and wouldn’t change anything.
Since its publication, you’ve written extensively on the Middle East, Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine, and US foreign policy. Do you feel there are parallels that could be drawn with any of these countries’ situations and the Baltics?
After this experience, I would be cautious about drawing many parallels. On the one hand, Russia regards the Baltic States in a very different and more restrained light than it regards Ukraine, for a whole set off well-known historical and cultural reasons. On the other hand – and this is something that I emphasised and praised very strongly in my book – the Baltic national movements and states, unlike the Georgians and some of the Ukrainians, have always been entirely peaceful, and have therefore never given Moscow any excuse for armed intervention.
You wrote in favour of the federalisation of Ukraine last year. Do you think a similar approach could be considered, under any circumstances for the Baltic states – e.g. Ida-Virumaa, Latgale, Vilnius region?
No. The Baltic States are much too small, and in any case the largest part of their Russian-speaking populations lives in their respective capitals. Federalisation is therefore neither desirable nor necessary – unless an armed revolt backed by Moscow were to break out, but I see no signs of this happening in the foreseeable future.
You warned of the danger in all the Baltic states, but especially Lithuania, of a romantic conception of national history and identity leading to insularity and illiberalism. Do you think that issues such as the refugee crisis and social changes risk leading to a revival in these feelings?
Yes, we see a return of a sort of “integral nationalism” across Eastern Europe – encouraged of course by the rise of similar movements in Western Europe. I used to joke that the one thing that would make Balts feel more kindly about their Russian minorities would be if they experienced mass immigration from the Muslim world. That is no longer a joke; and indeed Baltic integral nationalism is closer to that of many Russians than it is to what used to be at least the guiding ideals of the EU.
I picked up something of a striking personal dislike of Vytautas Landsbergis. Do you think this is a fair assessment? What are the reasons if so?
Well, I don’t wish to open old wounds, but speaking as a historian, I found many of his ideas uncomfortably close to those of European ethnic nationalisms in the century before 1939 – which led to two world wars.
You quote a poll from Izvestia in 1993 that said that just 4% of Russians wanted their country to recapture its great power status through military power and an aggressive foreign policy. What do you think has changed the situation?
Three things have changed the situation: the (partial) recovery of Russian strength under Vladimir Putin; anger at the way in which the USA has extended military alliances to Russia’s borders and backed anti-Russian forces among Russia’s neighbours; and a broader feeling that the USA has sacrificed its moral authority by its actions over the past 15 years, and deserves to be challenged. However, it is worth noting that while Russians overwhelmingly support Putin’s stance over Ukraine, much smaller numbers are in favour of the intervention in Syria, and only a very small number want to recreate anything like the USSR – if only because this would involve Russians once again living in the same state with Central Asians.
You wrote in 1994 that “the option of simply giving citizensip to all non-citizens, as urged by Moscow, is no longer an option, if it ever was one”. Do you still stand by the view that this would have been the wrong course?
On the one hand, such an unconditional grant was obviously completely unacceptable to many ethnic Balts, and would have greatly increased political and ethnic tensions in Latvia and Estonia. On the other, I think that it was reasonable for the Baltic States to set some conditions for citizenship – just as Western Europe should have thought more deeply about what conditions to apply to citizenship for immigrants over the past 60 years. However, I should also say that I was strongly opposed to the original Latvian and Estonian laws, and am very glad that they were greatly relaxed. Had they not been, we might be facing a much more dangerous situation today.
In 1993, your assessment was that Estonia had been the most successful of the Baltic states up to that point. Do you feel that’s still the case?
Yes, Estonia still does seem to me the most successful and stable.
You mentioned a danger – especially in Latvia – of nationalist dictatorship and inter-ethnic conflict. Do you think this has entirely gone away?
Four years ago, after Latvia had emerged peacefully from the terrible economic crisis produced by the recession of 2008, I would have said that this danger was probably over. Most unfortunately however we now see the possibility that the EU itself may collapse as a result of the backlash against Muslim immigration and the Euro. If God forbid that happens, we may find ourselves living a much more dangerous world in Europe, and a revival of old tensions cannot be ruled out.
It’s striking that the majority of The Baltic Revolution is, essentially, history, rather than analysis of the contemporary situation. Do you think that history is unusually key to understanding this part of the world?
Yes, absolutely. Of course, that reflects my initial training as a historian, but it also reflects my experience as a journalist and researcher in different parts of the world. History is crucial to shaping the present. Bush and Blair forgot that when they invaded Iraq in 2003 (one of his advisors described Blair as “living in an ahistorical zone” when it came to understanding Middle eastern history). We all know the catastrophe to which this attitude has led.
The possibility of the Baltics joining the EU is only mentioned once in your book, and the prospect of joining NATO not at all. Is this an omission on your part, or was the idea simply too far-fetched at this point in history?
Writing in 1993, EU membership seemed a long way away (it was in fact only ten years). As for NATO membership, I did not believe at that stage that the West would extend NATO into the territories of the former USSR, as I saw that as bound to lead to conflict with Russia – as indeed it has, though not thank God in the Baltic.
As a Russia analyst, what do you see the next few years bringing for Russia? Do you think Putin’s position is as strong as it appears to be?
Putin’s position is indeed probably strong, thanks to Russian nationalism and the fact that while Russia has suffered economically, the EU is now in even deeper crisis. For the future, the crucial test will come when Putin eventually steps down. He may be able to choose a successor accepted by the elites as a whole and manage the transition smoothly, but there is also a possibility that battles over spoils among the elites – in circumstances where the decline of oil and gas prices has greatly reduced the spoils available – will lead to the losers appealing to the streets and bring down his whole system.
Have the Baltics achieved their aims of becoming European countries?
I have always cautioned against an approach which talks of the Balts or others “becoming Europeans” or “joining the West” as if that means that history has come to an end. If – as seems alas to be entirely possible – in the next few years Britain leaves the EU, France elects Marine Le Pen as President, and the Euro and Schengen collapse, does that mean that these countries will have “ceased to be Europeans”? One could say yes, in the sense that “European” has been officially defined in the West over the past generation; but of course they will go on living on the same continent, sharing much of the same culture and interacting deeply in various ways. On that score, I would a like to say again, as I have said many times, that history is a very long business, and however long the EU and NATO survive, Russia will also remain a neighbour of the Baltic States, with whom they will have to co-exist.
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