Friends & Neighbours

Three seats, but one is hotter than the others

Three seats, but one is hotter than the others

The vote of confidence is a well-known phenomenon in the world of football management.

After a run of a dozen dismal matches, the board of a club will get together and stage such a vote which will be carried unanimously, followed by the issuance of statement saying the manager “retains our full confidence” and “has a long term future at this club.”

Two matches later they generally sack him if he hasn’t already jumped.

The reason I mention this is not because of any particular interest in which football manager is next for the guillotine, but because a lot of the encouragement currently being lavished on Latvia has the distinct ring of boardroom-type support to it.

First Estonia and now Lithuania are trying to make it clear to the rest of the world that they’d really rather not be bracketed along with Latvia if it’s all the same. Yes, a look at the charts on economic recession, unemployment and budget deficits might make it look like all three Baltic states are experiencing pretty much the same phenomenon (albeit to different degrees) but the increasingly clear message is “Please don’t confuse us with poor Latvia – though of course we have full confidence in its long-term future.”

As previously noted on this blog Estonia sensed this was necessary early on by offering to contribute to Latvia’s international bail-out package (an offer then-Latvian-PM Godmanis gruffly rejected, aware of the signal it sent out). Estonia established itself among the donor caste while Latvia became an untouchable charity case.

A somewhat less subtle bit of theatre came last week when the editor of Estonia’s Aripaev newspaper wrote a public letter to the Swedish banks asking them to please refrain from referring to “the Baltics” as it might give the impression Estonia has something in common with Latvia [my paraphrasing].

At this weekend’s Riga Conference, discussions were supposed to begin with the topic Recovery from the Recession in the Baltics. However, listening to it in the Small Guild with portraits of yesteryear’s wealthy Baltic German burgomeisters staring down from the walls, it sounded rather more like Recession in Latvia – Why Estonia Is Doing So Much Better.

The next day the big guns were wheeled into town in the contrasting shapes of the Estonian and Lithuanian presidents. Dalia Grybauskaite wasted no time in grabbing the underperforming conference by the lapels, shaking it violently and telling it to pull itself together and do something useful, much as she is doing with her country.

“Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are full members of the Alliance and active security providers participating in NATO’s operation in Afghanistan and other missions. Therefore, we deserve to have security guarantees and concrete defense plans for our countries.” – President Dalia Grybauskaite

Her demand to NATO was the only whiff of a headline wafting around Riga all weekend, provided you ignored a slip by the Latvian defence minister in which he apparently gave away classified information (you can’t get the staff…).

Where Grybauskaite was direct to the point of bluntness, Estonia’s President Ilves remained as urbane and deft of touch as ever with his pronouncements. On the face of things he said nothing of particular interest, but scratch at his words a bit and a few interesting nuances glint through.

His official press release notes: “Presidents Ilves and Zatlers recognized that the financial and economic situations in the Baltic countries differ, that the problems of the three countries are dissimilar, although the successes and failures of each country affect the reputation of the entire region.”

Ilves also went out of his way to stress the importance of the Baltic Sea Strategy, which involves all the countries around the Baltic littoral. How much better to be regarded as a Baltic Sea State along with Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland etc rather than a mere Baltic State shackled to Lithuania and Latvia?

Expect to see Estonia moving further in this direction from now on – it wouldn’t surprise me if every time someone mentions the Baltic states from now on, a helpful Estonian will pop up to explain why the term Baltic Sea States is actually much more modern and useful.

To finish where we started, how about this:

“I am sure that Latvia will be able to solve its own problems. I believe in Latvia. Latvia is not alone with its worries. Estonia and Lithuania, as well as the entire European Union, stand by it as firm allies.” – President Toomas Hendrik Ilves

If that doesn’t have the ring of a confidence vote about it, I don’t know what does.

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