The Baltic States. These small countries in the North-eastern part of Europe might not be the most common holiday destination. Perhaps Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are also not the host countries you think of when planning an Erasmus+ semester abroad. Our colleague Josien Jense wrote an article in which she explained how to gain international working experience with financial aid through the European Voluntary Service (EVS).1 If her experience inspired you and you want to discover a region in Europe that still remains to be discovered by the big public, why not pack your bags and leave for the Baltics? The Baltic region is an excellent destination to travel around, to study for one semester or to gain your first (paid) international working experience for those interested in (recent) history and the complex current political situation in the region.
Opportunities in the Baltics
The Baltics also offer some true opportunities for students and young professionals. With regard to the Erasmus exchange programmes, Estonia ranked 1st in terms of student satisfaction with their stay in the host institution.2 The University of Tartu in Estonia’s second city of Tarty is among the 3% best universities in the world, according to the Times Higher Education (THE).3 Other well-known universities in the region include the University of Latvia4, Kaunas University of Technology5 and Vilnius University.6 The Baltic States also offer many EVS project to gain financed working experiences before entering the labour market.7
My Personal Experience
Inspired by a Dutch documentary on the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Way8, which I discussed in the first paragraph, I marked Estonia as my top choice for my Erasmus student exchange (followed by Iceland and Japan, though if my home institution had partnerships with Latvian or Lithuanian universities Latvia and Lithuania would most probably further complement my list). Inspired by everything I had heard, I packed my bags and flew (on my very first flight) to Estonia’s capital of Tallinn, from where it was about a 2-hour drive to Tartu. At the University of Tartu I took many courses from the unique European Union – Russia Studies MA programme, which offers a wide range of courses on the Baltic Sea Region, Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia.9 I also used my time in Tartu to acquaint myself better with the Baltic region. At the end of my semester abroad I returned to the Netherlands even more fascinated than before about the Baltic States and the other countries of the former Soviet Union.
My stay in Tartu inspired me to continue my academic career in Russian and Eurasian Studies at Leiden University10 after I graduated for my bachelor’s degree in European Studies. In short, I can say that I owe much of what I am doing right now to my prior visit. I am still having a clear focus on Central and Eastern Europe (especially the Baltic States), Russia and Eurasia. I can even draw a parallel between my stay in Tartu and my current internship at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Lithuania.11 At the moment, I benefit largely from the knowledge that I obtained during and after my stay in Tartu.
What Makes the Baltics Unique?
The term Baltic States – not to be confused with the Baltic Sea Region, that usually also include Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Russia and Sweden – was taken from the 11th century German chronicler Adam of Bremen who spoke of the Mare Balticum, derived from the Latin word balteus (“balt”).12 In 1991, the Baltic States declared their renewed independence. It is regarded as the restoration of their independence, as the Baltics experienced a short era of independence from 1917 to 1939. Out of the chaotic times during the First World War in which Tsarist Russia was on the verge of collapse, the Baltic States demonstrated their very existence as independent nations to the world with their declaration of independence.13 The Baltic peoples had a long history of subjugation by foreign powers. Large parts of Estonia and Latvia belonged to the Swedish throne until they were ceded to the Russian Empire.14 Lithuania, however, has a proud history as an important and powerful empire together with the Poles; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, although this empire also started to crumble under Russian pressure.15 As a result, the Baltic nations entered the 19th century under Tsarist subjugation.
As discussed, the Baltics enjoyed a short era of independence. This era was abruptly ended by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union divided the spheres of influence in North-eastern Europe. After the Second World War, the Baltics were subject to Soviet occupation, although even until today this claim conflicts with the Russian narrative that the Baltic States voluntarily joined the Soviet Union.16 Given the status of the Baltic States as a western outpost, the Baltics became to be known as the “Soviet abroad”.17 Moreover, the inhabitants of Estonia’s capital of Tallinn could receive Finnish radio and television broadcasts.18 These specific features made the Baltic States a distinct group within the Soviet structure. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms that loosened the grip of Moscow on all aspects of citizen’s daily lives, he also unleashed a wave of renewed national awakening that was particularly strong in the Baltic States. At the end of the 1980s, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian citizens openly questioned Soviet authority and started to wave their officially banned national flags and to sing their national anthems.19 This erupted into the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Way, the human chain that was formed from Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius to Tallinn. The Baltic Way was the most important symbol of the Baltic resistance against the Soviet occupation.20
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and their renewed independence, the Baltic States made a rapid transition towards a democracy and market economy. In their quest to “return to the West” the Baltics received considerable practical support from countries like Denmark, Finland and Sweden.21 European and Euro-Atlantic integration became the key foreign policy goals of the Baltics. After the Baltic admission to both the European Union (EU) and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Baltic States quickly transformed from students into teachers. They sought to strengthen the relations of the European and Euro-Atlantic structures with countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.22 In the current Ukrainian Crisis, Baltic leaders are vocally very tough on Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The demonstrated similar behaviour during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. For instance, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė did not hesitate to compare her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin with Stalin and to call Russia a “terrorist state”.23 Another bone of contention is the position of the Russian minority in the Estonia and Latvia. Perhaps the worst crisis was the Bronze Soldier Crisis in 2007 in Tallinn when the authorities decided to relocate this monument sparked clashes between Russian-speaking protesters and the Estonian police. The monument was erected during Soviet times to commemorate the fallen Soviet soldiers who ‘liberated’ Estonia from the Nazi occupation. However, the Estonians rather regard it as a symbol of Soviet terror and occupation.24 Crises like the problematic relocation of the Soviet monument are likely to continue to occur in the near future, which makes this region once again a very interesting and dynamic region.
Thus, the history and political developments in the Baltic region make it a very interesting place to visit. In addition, there are perfect opportunities to broaden your horizon in the Baltics during or after your study career. If you are planning a trip, an Erasmus exchange or an EVS, perhaps think twice and consider going to Estonia, Latvia and/or Lithuania. You will certainly not regret your stay in any of these countries.