Emus of the world, unite! Welcome to Lithuania, which along with Latvia and Estonia makes up the Baltic states. It also makes an interesting case study, when considering the two big contemporary debates in British politics.
Immigration and our continued membership of the EU are both hot topics – but we only ever see one side of the story. Coverage of last month’s migration statistics was all about “How do those people coming here affect us?” rather than “What about the people left over there?”
Grutas Park is about an hour outside of the capital Vilnius. It’s a brilliantly weird graveyard of statues from the country’s past as one of the more reluctant constituent parts of the Soviet Union. Rather than simply pull down the monuments which used to stand in every town square, they have been collected together and bizarrely housed along with a number of zoo animals. It serves as a reminder of just how far the Baltic states have come in just 25 years.
The Baltics have not had a particularly happy history, used as a battlefield and treated by foreign armies as a source of people to murder. During my trip to Latvia and Lithuania, it seemed as though most tourist attractions were memorials to one massacre or another. The name of the Museum of Genocide Victims does a good job of managing your expectations. Thanks to decades of Soviet mismanagement, the countries are also some of the poorest in the European Union. The median wage in Lithuania is only €361 per month, compared to €2,080 per month in the UK
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, since 1990, when the countries declared their independence, they have faced a huge demographic crisis. People have been flooding out of the region, so much so that its population has fallen by around 20 per cent. Lithuania crashed from 3.7m people 1991 to 3m in 2013; Latvia fell from 2.7m to 2m; even Estonia, which has performed the best out of the three, has still fallen from 1.6m to 1.3m.
You can see this reflected on the ground, too. As my partner Liz and I drove around Lithuania and Latvia it was clear that they don’t need to build more bloody houses: instead they could do with finding some people to live in the ones they already have. Looking down at the Vilnius suburbs from the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV tower there are endless blocks of flats (the Soviets didn’t really do houses). The Khrushchyovka apartnements are built in long, identical blocks for maximum efficiency – on a scale that makes South London’s former Brutalist icon Heygate Estate look artisanal.
Look a little closer, though, and the decay becomes clear. The really shocking thing when you first arrive in the Baltics is just how many abandoned buildings there are. Blocks of flats will sit next to each other: one dilapidated but inhabited, the other seemingly an empty shell.
Annoyingly, the weather was too good to fully create a “Soviet dystopia” style aesthetic.
Even the grander homes sit empty. We stayed in a former palace built by Catherine the Great, which had been transformed into a four star hotel, for about £50 a night. When we arrived, it turned out that not only was most of the building still under renovation (those either side were still vacant). Bizarrely, we were the only guests.
Catherine the Great's Palace, Vilnius. Image: James O'Malley.
This meant we had the slightly surreal experience of – apart from three members of staff – having the whole former palace to ourselves. As we sat down to dinner that night I found myself wondering if we had in fact died. Were we stuck in some sort of weird purgatory? Perhaps the three members of staff waiting on us were actually ghosts?
The centre of Riga, the capital of Latvia, feels more like a small west European city than anywhere else in the country. Drive a few minutes out, though, and once again the sense of emptiness returns. Upon visiting Riga’s rival TV tower, we drove up a deserted road, parked in a deserted car park and edged towards a deserted entrance.
After a nervous prod of the door, it turned out that the tower was open – and after some hand-gesture driven negotiations with a security guard who spoke no English, he let us take the lift, alone, to the top. After a slightly unnerving few seconds waiting for the door to open again, we emerged in the viewing area, the only people in Latvia 300m in the air. With a decor that hasn’t been updated since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was like exploring the remnants of a post-apocalyptic civilisation.
There are new buildings too though. When the countries joined the European Union in 2004 there was a housing boom – one that ended abruptly with the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and with the Eurozone’s woes. In amongst the post-Soviet decay, there are also half-finished buildings that appear to have been abandoned mid-construction.
The demographic problem is also a bit of a time-bomb. As you might expect, most migrants are younger people looking for work: there’s a smaller pool of people left in the countries to pay for the welfare of the elderly. Like Britain, and pretty much everywhere, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all have large cohorts of baby boomers nearing retirement. Unfortunately for people in the Baltics, many of the people who would help pay for their care are elsewhere, paying taxes into the British and German treasuries instead. Perhaps we should be pleased that people are coming to the UK to work to help us mitigate our future demographic burdens.
Away from the technocratic questions about running an economy, there are also broader issues of identity at play. In contrast to the relationship between Brussels and Britain, membership of the EU has created a sense of hope in the Baltics.
A view of Vilnius from above. Image: James O'Malley.
Since joining the union in 2004, wages have about doubled in all three states according to one study. Just as importantly, perhaps, European cash has flooded into the countries. The economic and political case for this should be unarguable for anyone who believes in free trade: If the Baltic states get richer, that is good for Britain as it means more people who can buy British stuff.
One of the most common pieces of street furniture on show in the region are street signs bearing the blue flag and 12 stars of European Union. Since joining the EU money has poured in, to help build roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure. It’s also helped to improve the Baltics as tourist destinations: Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site made from crucifixes, has an EU funded gift shop. The EU’s investment strategy is centred on adding value to projects that are co-funded by national governments, to try and kick-start the motor of development and growth.
The best example of what EU cash can do to the region can be seen in the plan for a new railway linking Berlin to Talinn, and eventually Helsinki. It’s a project far beyond the scope of the individual small nations, yet one which could massively boost connectivity and the region’s economic prospects. Whenever British politicians talk about sending money to Brussels as though it is a waste, this is one of the things that they’re helping pay for.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result, polls have shown high levels of support for European integration. Last year a survey in Lithuania found that 68 per cent of people there support the country’s continued membership of the EU, with only 14% wanting to pull out. (To be fair, support in the countries for the Euro, which they all joined after the recession, appears to be less enthusiastic.)
As a Briton visiting the countries, when I saw signs of development, I found myself thinking all sorts of patronising thoughts about how there’s so much potential in the cities of the Baltics. The signs are already there: the region is already one of the best in the world for broadband speeds, which can only be a good thing.
And it is pretty hard to begrudge the EU spending its cash on the Baltics – even if it comes at the supposed expense of the British taxpayer. After all, many of the roads outside of urban areas and trunk road are not even paved. Actually going to eastern Europe and being pulled out of the British solipsism, arguing about how much cash is disappearing to Brussels, and seeing where it actually goes at the other can give the debate some much needed perspective.
Similarly, the immigration debate in Britain is essentially viewed in terms of them coming over here with little consideration given to the places they’re leaving behind. Like so many things, immigration is a trade off – and we can have multiple desirable outcomes that are mutually incompatible.
Whilst the flow of people from the region no doubt poses challenges, having visited, I’m firmly of the opinion that continuing to participate in Europe will ultimately work out better for both Britain and the Baltics. Perhaps the debate in Britain would be better informed if it was less narcissistic.
James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor.