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A View from the Baltic Republics PDF Printable Version E-mail

Camping Labirinti

20 September 2015

Dear friends

A View from the Baltic Republics Autumn 2015

Labirinti, the name of this amazing campsite some 30 miles south of Riga along the Via Baltica, is the Latvian word for the noun 'labyrinth' whose adjective 'labyrinthine' is a good description of what is attempted in this email. 

Here is something of a Polemic which is the result of experiences during our fifth visit to the Baltic Republics. The factors include the history of this region's occupation by successive waves of Germans and Russians, the considerable development here since 1990, the looming Russian threat, the current movement of migrants in the Balkan countries with the consequent closing of open borders and the threat to the Schengen Agreement, the resurgence of socialism in the UK while SYRIZA faces defeat in Greece, and my own memories of taking refuge from war.

The mood we are picking up here in Latvia and earlier in Estonia (and Finland) is of people relieved not to be a target for the many migrants heading north through Europe. The Baltic Republics are still recovering from the devastations of the Second World War, followed by 45 years of incorporation within the Soviet Union. In the 25 years since that empire collapsed, the three Republics have made great progress. They have all joined the EU, NATO and more recently the Eurozone. Like the thick layers of new bitumen on the old crumbling roads, these changes are not ephemeral: they are designed to last and take a lot of heavy use.

On our first visit in 1999, there were closed borders with no-man's-lands, complete with convoluted exit and entry procedures that culminated in 2-hour queues. Imagine this on the borders between Poland-Lithuania, Lithuania-Latvia, Latvia-Estonia and Estonia-Finland (see the account of our 1999 journey from Finland to Poland via the Baltic Republics). Today all these frontiers are open: there is just an information board at the border, alongside the high-speed road. The people don't want to lose that freedom and return to closed borders, something they see happening to equally hard-won progress in the Balkans.

There is already a sharpening tension here, since all three countries border Russia and all three countries are home to substantial numbers of Russians and Russian-speakers. With a total population of just over 6 million, the three countries contain one million Russians. They make up almost half the population of Estonia's and Latvia's capital cities, Tallinn and Riga. The Estonians, only about 1 million strong in their own country, have struggled for centuries to maintain their culture and their Finno-Ugric language in the face of successive German and Russian occupations.

NATO has strengthened its presence in this part of the Baltic, very much aware of the tactics of encroachment and fermentation of internal dissent used by Russia in Eastern Ukraine.

Given the struggle to reach and maintain their present level of development, the local people we have spoken to cannot see why economic migrants from outside the European Union should benefit from all their skill and hard work. They believe it would be better for migrants to stay in or near their own country, to take part in its struggle and its future redevelopment.

Earlier this year we journeyed back to the UK from Greece via Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany a route now made familiar in every news broadcast. Then the borders were open and welcoming. On entering Macedonia we were required to pay 55 for 15 days of vehicle insurance, but the apologies were profuse. The UK has the most restrictive motor insurance policies of any country in the EU: everyone else, automatically covered by their own insurance, had only to show their passport.

Now everyone is inconvenienced and restricted by checks at all the borders on that journey and there is a real risk that the freedoms endowed by the Schengen Agreement will be abandoned. All this is happening when only 20% of the migrants reaching Germany are from Syria; twice as many (40%) are economic migrants from the non-EU Balkans Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and even Serbia. Most are fit young men, joining in the rush for benefits and jobs in the heart of Europe, when they are much needed in their own countries.

I am reminded of the mass destruction, death and injury perpetrated by the Germans on many countries throughout Europe between 1939 and 1945. 'Migrations' took many forms: escape from advancing enemy troops, escape from the carpet bombing of cities, deportation to extermination camps in eastern Poland, enforced slave labour in Germany, Germans displaced from the countries they had occupied, people displaced in the movement of national boundaries, and prisoners of war returning home when they were finally released.

Only the Jews had to actually leave Europe and found a whole new country in a hostile desert. The great majority of displaced people remained within Europe and ultimately returned to where they belonged. They took part in the recovery and rebuilding of their countries, after 1945 in the West and 1990 in the East, with America holding back the Russians in those intervening 45 years. This phoenix-like rising from the ashes led to the astonishing achievement of the European Union.

As a young child, I was part of this process as an internally displaced refugee during World War II: given refuge from the bombing of the North Sea port of Hull, the second most devastated of any UK city.  I was 'evacuated', being returned home when the bombing eased. Only 6,000 out of the 91,000 houses in the city were undamaged by the end of the war. There was no 'refuge' other than the air-raid shelter, or evacuation from the city. People stayed and they fought back and they won and they restored the country. Indeed, life in Britain improved with the reforms introduced by the Atlee government in the immediate aftermath of war (see our article on this subject): the NHS, pensions, social security, nationalisation, reform of the education system.

The latter gave Margaret and me (as well as Jeremy Corbyn) the benefit of a free grammar school education: a benefit still easily outclassed by any public school boy or girl! The class system still rules and Jeremy has much to do or, like SYRIZA in Greece, will he yet sing to the capitalists' tune?