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International Internet Magazine. Baltic States news & analytics Friday, 25.05.2018, 13:47

Where to look for the Baltic Sea Region identity?

Karina Pētersone, Director of Latvian Institute, Riga, 18.05.2012.Print version
People say that a person is what he eats. Paraphrasing this I would say that a person is what he reads. My childhood bookshelf had books by Andersen, Brothers Grimm, Astrid Lindgren, Latvian and other fairy tales on it. This reading has shaped me as personality with a strong sense of the regional, not only national identity. These two identities have never been in conflict, they have entwined and enriched each other.

The Baltic Sea region has existed as a territory without fixed borders since times immemorial, however, institutionalization of it as a territorial cohesion initiative has happened only recently. Also, recent historical political changes have added a new dimension to the region and its identity.


The honeymoon feelings which blossomed at the end of the Cold War and during Velvet and other kind of revolutions in the Central and Eastern Europe unfortunately are long since gone. During early 1990ies, the lost diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with neighbors across the Baltic Sea were being actively re-built, and aspirations in the newcomers towards the community-based and well-functioning models of the Nordic societies were running high. However, after that the nations around the Baltic Sea retuned back to their routines of state building and were busy joining the EU and other influential international nation-clubs.


Currently, the region countries are looking at each other again and are busy shaping a European macro-region – the Baltic Sea Region – the Strategy of which is a political initiative knitting it together within the EU.


Part of it is an attempt to brand the region, and for that matter the question: whether there is a common Baltic Sea Region identity, has been posed and debated over the last 20 years.


Director of the Baltic Development Forum, Hans Brask, in his Foreword to the Identity Report of the BSR of 2011, writes: “…the concept of a common identity in the Baltic Sea Region is the most difficult and the most demanding to apply. To speak about a common identity one has to have strong shared values and a clear sense of belonging. (…)Is it at all possible to speak about a common identity when one of the most striking features of the region is heterogeneity?”[2]


Professor Bernd Henningsen, the author of this Report 2011, in his essay “On Identity – No Identity”, asserts that “the Baltic Sea Region is a history of co-operation and conflict” and looks for a common identity in history, landscape and climate, trade, architecture, art and culture, education and science, eating habits, as well as in the presence of the sea, to conclude that to look for a common identity leads one to a trap: “How can a region have something in common – “an identity” – or be regarded as homogeneous, when nine different languages are spoken within it, it contains more than nine ethnicities, uses eight different currencies practices three different forms of Christianity,…, and last but not least, which fosters relatively different political cultures.”[3]


He states that “…all previous attempts to understand the Baltic Sea region through its history, culture, language (…) have failed”, however he identifies several elements that “…cause people around the Baltic sea to develop a “we-feeling”. “The Sea, its coastlines, its weather and climate, seasons, summer vacations, yearnings for freedom, remnants of architecture and culture, city life, (…), let alone first hand or passed down memories of the wars, which people waged against each other.”[4]  And therefore he suggests that we should refer to this “we-feeling” rather than look for a common identity.


I dare suggest that in our search for a common identity for the region we look for inner and outer denominators. Apart from those that create the “we-feeling” mentioned by B. Henningsen, I propose to look at archetypes. The best place to look for them is the mentioned fairy tales, common to the region, which very seldom have happy endings. The morale is: an individual should rely on himself and not on some magic, besides – sadness is enlightening and it is advisable that one is compassionate and feels solidarity.


However, if we find it difficult to describe the Baltic Sea Region as identical to itself, which is the case with the multitude of cultures and economic circumstances, then probably we have to use the relative method and look for denominators outside trying to construct the regional identity by method of defining what the region is not in order to see its strengths. A good method is that of juxtaposition:


1) BSR vs the South, is Northern – we have the change of seasons, snow, seasonal fruit and vegetables, tourism opportunities; hardships have made the people creative and resourceful;


2) BSR vs tyrannies – is democratic, it respects the rule of law, property and human rights;


3) vs the East there is lots of green, unspoiled land, educated work-force, financial and legal systems in place that allow for cooperation and even coordination of policies;

4) vs countries that experience difficulties in balancing their spending with earnings, the BSR countries have demonstrated resilience, solidarity and  discipline.


Here I would like to follow professor Henningsen’s thesis that identity often is not itself center of discussions or programs, it is a purpose for political, cultural or scientific interests. (p.22) Therefore I suggest that we look for the Baltic Sea Region identity from the angle of the European Union Strategy for the BSR, which is a result of political agreement, expressing the will of all the nations of the region to cooperate, build networks and engage all possible actors for the purpose of enhancing the region’s prosperity, increasing its accessibility and attractiveness, as well as enabling a sustainable environment and ensuring safety and security in the region.


Therefore, for political reasons and for the benefit of the peoples who inhabit the region, our identity search has to be forward and not backwards directed, its pivot should be the political will to act in accord, use the rich potential, the above strengths, in order to lessen the differences in living standards, political habits, levels of energy security, infrastructure durability and accessibility of territories within the region by land, air, sea and rail routes.


For branding purposes the BSR can lean on its sectorial priorities, the 5 “e”-s, as emphasized by Former president of the Baltic Development Forum Uffe Elleman Jensen: Economy, Ecology, Energy, Education, Euro. However, the Baltic Sea Region Strategy is an ownership of participation, where the potential lies in 5 “c”-s: Cooperation, Competition, Coordination, Communication and Creativity.


Estonian president Lennart Meri has once added to the debate saying that the axis of the region is the Sea itself.


With the new political commitment the axis of the region has pivoted from the Sea itself to the Strategy itself.

[2] Identity Report 2011, Baltic Development Forum, p.3.

[3] Identity Report 2011, Baltic Development Forum, p.17.

[4] Ibid, p.61.

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