Thursday, June 05, 2008

Fog on the Baltic

Baltic co-operation

All at sea

Jun 5th 2008 | RIGA
From The Economist print edition

The ideal international summit is a dinner party with a waiting list

ON ANY list of international organisations deserving the chop, the Council of the Baltic Sea States should have a high ranking. Its membership is illogical: non-Baltic Norway and faraway Iceland are in (thanks to their Nordic status), nearby Belarus is not. And its purpose is fuzzy.

Set up in 1992 after the collapse of communism to bridge the east-west gap across the Baltic, the 11-country body, complete with a secretariat, a rotating presidency and working groups and committees, plods on. Leaden but lavishly produced publicity material discusses “Balticness” and highlights such gems as the “expert group dealing with social inclusion, healthy lifestyles and work ability” and the members' supposedly common tastes in jazz and photography.

To its critics, such activities demonstrate a waste of taxpayers' money and busy people's time. Oddly, the biggest advocates of chopping are the members themselves. The main agenda item at this week's summit in Latvia was how to trim the CBSS's activities. If the sceptics have their way, it will become little more than an annual dinner party.

That could be a promising niche. “The CBSS is now so boring that the Russians don't try to disrupt it,” admits a normally hawkish official. Russia was represented in Riga not by the abrasive Vladimir Putin but by the man who was once his smooth summit sherpa, Igor Shuvalov (he is now the prime minister's senior deputy). Even when he was berated by countries prone to Russia-bashing, he remained impeccably, politely dull, insisting that the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany on the Baltic seabed threatens nobody.

Perhaps the biggest sign that the CBSS has a future is that France—which has no historical or cultural connections to the Baltic—is pressing to become a full member, possibly because it suspects that Germany is growing too important in the region. Existing members find this Gallic interest both puzzling and flattering. “It suggests that they don't really know what goes on here,” comments one official.

Yet if the CBSS is boring, the region is certainly not. Western governments are keeping a keen eye on the three Baltic countries' economic wobbles. They are also nervous about the spending power and energy clout of a resurgent Russia. That puts the Baltic in the front line of what one foreign minister calls “a sharp strategic conflict”. Not the kind of cosy, phoney Balticness that the CBSS purports to promote.


Hansken said...

I reckon that the author starts to be little behind when it comes to latest developments of the region. Or how it is perceived. I've started to notice that 'Baltic countries' refers these days increasingly to all countries around the Baltic Sea and not only to the three 'Baltic states' of the various Russian imperiums in the past. I suggest that 'Baltic states' will be one of the terms to compete in the future for replacing the gradually outdated geographical concepts such as the 'nordic countries' or the faint 'Scandinavia'. Political reality has changed and in time will also our popular geographic mindset.

BTW: Norway has always been a Baltic country - it's at its mouth! Iceland, I agree, is not. But what is this thing about Belarus?! Look at the map!

Giustino said...

Iceland is lonely, Hansken. Besides, it used to be a Danish possession, so it gets a seat at the table.