Letter from Vilnius and Riga

Besides Eurovision, what do states like the Baltic ones have to offer us, that is the lucky ones that – deservedly or not – are already longtime members of the EU? OK, picturesque Greece has been granted entry thanks to its illustrious past and probably for contributing retsina and feta to the European dinner table, but what do Latvia or Lithuania have to recommend? Well, ballet, just to name one thing. Ten days ago Brigida Stroda, deputy director of Latvia’s National Opera («I was born in the city with the largest Greek population after Athens, namely Melbourne!») remarked proudly: «We have one of the best classic dance groups in Europe. About 70 members. It is such a pity you can’t see our Tchaikovsky as choreographed by this highly gifted Boris Eifman of St Petersburg.» Well, I saw «The Sleeping Beauty» at a matinee performance which was, I guess, all right too. Sports fans insist that the Latvians should be included at any rate, if not for anything else then solely because they are doing so well in their national sport, which is ice hockey. Located in northeastern Europe on the Baltic Sea, Latvia has long served as a bridge between Western Europe and Russia. The celebrated «route from the Vikings to the Greeks» has been mentioned in ancient chronicles. Now the same route is, almost, functioning again. Sadly, there is no direct flight between our two countries. Yet. Further south, Lithuania, which boasts the most ethnically homogenous population of the three Baltic states, became united in about 1250 under King Mindaugas. Although now Lithuanians show an understandable aversion to the word «union» – it reminds them of the long Soviet winters – they are now willing to be united under the EU. For the last two weeks I have been traveling extensively through a region that only a few years ago, I knew only from my grandfather’s stamp collection. Now, only weeks away from the December Copenhagen summit, and from that other important date, January 2003, when Greece takes over EU presidency, the big expansion – some 500 million people with the potential to walk tall on the world stage – enters its final phase. «We return where we have always belonged: to Europe,» I was told in Vilnius by Petras Austrevicius, chief negotiator with the EU. Good for them, too bad for the Russians who live on the eastern front of the Kaliningrad enclave and who will need a visa after Poland and Lithuania join. Enormous progress has been made from the time, in the late 1980s, of the breakup of the Soviet Union of which the Baltic states had been unwilling members since the 1940s. These expectant and impatient candidates have worked hard to adjust to the rigorous political and economic conditions required for entry. Between 22 and 28 of some 30 negotiating «chapters,» covering issues ranging from the environment to accounting standards, had to be closed by the end of this year. They are never-ending documents of small print which have to be agreed upon with Brussels before Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus and Malta can join the club in 2004. Yet there are still problems, such as the plans to reform the Common Agricultural Policy as some members, mainly France, fight bitterly to delay changes. An agricultural country, Greece could have blocked the enlargement. However it chose to remain silent on this matter in order not to endanger Cyprus’s entry into the EU. Of course, the official position is that the island as a whole should join, but if the proposal by the UN secretary-general, which will be presented to both parties this afternoon, fails to broker a peace deal between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, everyone will be facing agonizing choices. Yet Cyprus is not the sole headache for Brussels. A recent report issued last week by the Open Society Institute (a George Soros organization) warns of other dangers as well in regard to the candidate countries, and specifically the peril that could undermine the EU’s economy and also its political values: corruption. No doubt there is well-hidden corruption all over this region, the Greek honorary consul in Vilnius, Mr George Kontogeorgos, told me last Wednesday. Diplomatically, he did not elaborate. He did not have to, necessarily. Quentin Reed, the editor of the OSI report, says that the EU has not established clear benchmarks for the candidate countries in the fight against corruption. The same report notes that corruption is a «serious problem» in Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia. In Lithuania, the administrative sector appears most directly affected, although this conclusion is compromised by a reported lack of reliable information. Yet it also states that corruption varies significantly from country to country. Estonia is «perceived as the least corrupt» of the candidates. Latvia is described as having a «major problem» with corruption, which is exacerbated by the pervasive influence of private interests on the legislative process. According to the OSI report, which bases most of its concrete analysis on studies conducted by the global watchdog Transparency International and the World Bank, current member states such as Greece and Italy tend to move into the candidate-state bracket of being more corrupt. Good for us that they still love and admire us up there in the Baltics. Margarita Raun – an Estonian professional singer and tambourine player who has changed her name to an alias, Margarita Margaro – loves to sing «Maast meid lahti sirtaki» (Get up and dance syrtaki) and «Karjaplika Syroselt» (Vamvakaris’s Frangosyriani). Meanwhile, actor Dainius Gavenonis, who plays Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in a modern production by Oskaras Korsunovas – a highly acclaimed star of the new generation of directors from Vilnius – fills the theater they perform in to capacity. Since 1989, Lithuania has participated in international theatrical life, showing its productions at international theater festivals all over the world. The leaders of this new expansion of the Lithuanian theater are Eimuntas Nekrosius, whose magnificent «Macbeth» was shown this summer at the Athens Festival and also Oskaras Korsunovas. It is nice to have such first-rate creators in the European family.

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