At the starting line
Tibet, the Olympics and the Baltic republics
THE highest point in the Baltic states is Big Egg Mountain in Estonia, at a towering 318 metres above sea level, about one-thirtieth of the height of Everest. That aside, the similarities between the Baltic states and Tibet are striking.
Both were wiped off the map by much larger neighbours, who criminalise any expression of national sentiment (the Tibetan flag is banned by the Chinese authorities, just as owning a flag in the colours of the pre-war Baltic republics guaranteed harsh punishment in the Soviet era). In both Tibet and the Baltics, public yearning for independence is matched by apathy from the outside world.
The Kremlin’s policy of using migration and forced Russification to counter “nationalist” tendencies in the Baltic states was pretty similar to China's current policy in Tibet. The bogus rhetoric of communist ethnic harmony (“Be like us and we can all be happy”) is almost identical, as is the genuine incomprehension among the dominant ethnic group (Russians in the Soviet Union, Han Chinese in the People’s Republic) that minorities have anything to complain about.
If by some historical fluke Tibet regains independence, it will face the same problems as Estonia and Latvia with their Soviet-era Russian migrants. Will the Chinese settlers who have so contemptuously refused to learn Tibetan become automatic citizens of the new country?
For both the Baltic states then and Tibet now, émigré outfits matter a lot. The Tibetan government-in-exile is the symbolic focus of the country’s statehood, maintaining legal continuity from the days when it ran a real country. The feeling of slightly desperate, dusty determination in Tibetan offices is uncannily like that in the Baltic states’ surviving embassies in the 1980s.
The big difference, of course, is the Dalai Lama, who has the star appeal of Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi combined. Ernst Jaakson, the Estonian consul-general in New York, and Stasys Lozoraitis, the Lithuanian ambassador to the Vatican, were both deeply impressive, but hardly household names.
And now the Olympics. The Moscow games in 1980 and then the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 were a chance for both sides to fight their propaganda war. The Kremlin staged the sailing events in Estonia, hoping to undermine the non-recognition policy maintained by most western countries (who regarded the Baltic republics as occupied territories rather than Soviet Socialist Republics).
In Washington, DC, a group calling themselves the Embassy 18 chained themselves to the then-Soviet embassy, hanging a banner across 16th St reading “Lithuania 1940, Afghanistan 1980”. It showed “Happy Mischa” (the cuddly ursine mascot of the Soviet Olympic effort) dancing on a pile of skulls.
Tibetan efforts against this year’s games will be more dramatic. Disrupting the torch-lighting ceremony in Athens was just the start. But does it do any good? Interfering with sport—a secular religion in much of the world—risks annoying the apolitical, rather than highlighting the desired cause.
At least it is clear that staging an Olympic games sharpens choices for a totalitarian regime. Even the most brutal party hacks and secret policemen realise that when you are trying to showcase your system, beating people up in public risks giving the wrong impression. What will the Chinese authorities do if thousands of athletes are wearing “illegal” Dalai Lama badges?
It is easy to forget how bleak the chances of restoring Baltic independence seemed only 25 years ago. Imagine the Tibetan team at the 2036 Olympics. Farfetched? Perhaps. But in 1980 few would have placed a bet on Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian teams appearing in international sport ever again.