On February 16, 2018, Lithuania is celebrating its 100th anniversary since its independence was reinstated and the country was formed as a modern democratic state. Neighboring Estonia and Latvia are also marking their centennials this year, but the three countries have a lot more to celebrate than a shared historic milestone. The Baltic states have been among the most successful countries of the more than 20 post-communist states, and they send an important message as Washington and the American public are growing fatigued with spreading democracy abroad, and while democracy is backsliding in some states of Central and Eastern Europe.
Lithuania’s success as a democratic state that has not only survived but thrived in a region historically prone to conflict should be recognized and celebrated by its allies in Washington, NATO, and the European Union. The Baltic countries serve as beacons to Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and many democratic-minded individuals in Russia, Belarus, and further afield. Their success also serves to refute the daily Kremlin propaganda against Western liberal democracies by demonstrating the economic, security, and societal benefits of open societies and of EU and NATO membership.
Lithuania’s road to being a committed defender of democratic values and principles has not been an easy one—something the country’s people and its allies should not forget. In 1918, in the upheaval following World War I, Lithuanians, like many other nations, rose up against outdated empires and asserted their independence and right to sovereignty. Many oppressed nations were inspired by U.S. President’s Woodrow Wilson’s support for self-determination and his commitment to protecting democracy. For Lithuania, that meant escaping the recent occupation of Germany and the previous rule of the Russian Czarist Empire, which itself was rocked by the Bolshevik Revolution. Modern Lithuania was reborn with the memory of the historic statehood it had enjoyed from 1253 to 1795, albeit with a much smaller geographic territory.
After 22 years of growth and prosperity, the Second World War brought three rounds of occupation for Lithuania—Soviet, Nazi, and Soviet again—the last of which persisted 50 years when the country was annexed by the Soviet Union. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, which as of February 5th has now been down for longer than it was up, brought cracks to the edifice of Soviet power. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania proclaimed the re-establishment of independence once more. It was the first among the Soviet republics to do so, launching the unraveling of the Soviet Union.
The United States was a strong advocate of the new Baltic democracies, just as Washington had supported the nations during the Cold War by never recognizing the illegal incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union. As a child growing up in Soviet Lithuania I already understood the symbolism of America’s support for Lithuania, at a time when even raising the country’s flag in commemoration of February 16th could land you in a KGB prison. When I moved to Los Angeles later in my youth, I took part in the Lithuanian-American community’s appeal to our state representatives and the President George H. W. Bush Administration to officially recognize the independence of Lithuania.
By 2004, again with much support from the United States, Lithuania together with other Central and East European states joined NATO and the European Union, returning to the family of democratic states. Even if the last few years have been marked by concern regarding Russia’s resurgent ambitions in the region, NATO membership makes the Baltic states safer today than ever before in their modern history. Article V guarantees from the alliance, reiterated again by President Donald Trump’s Administration, ensure that as a member Lithuania could count on its allies in the face of Russian aggression. This is priceless in an era when Russia has recently waged military campaigns and annexed territory in Georgia, Ukraine and beyond. At the same time, the Baltic countries have also proved themselves strong allies of NATO and the United States in the fight against terrorism by participating in missions to Afghanistan and Iraq and now contributing 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending.
EU membership has also ensured that Lithuania is more integrated with Europe than it has been in its modern history. The accompanying reforms and access to a common market have made Lithuania, along with the other Baltic states, among the most prosperous states in Central and Eastern Europe, and far more prosperous than all former Soviet republics. Indeed, Lithuania’s 2016 GDP per capita of $14,879 significantly exceeded Russia’s figure of $8,748, even if the latter benefits from a vastly larger territory, population, and endowment of natural resources.
In the past few years Lithuania has even solved its energy security dilemma. While previously 100 percent dependent on Russia for natural gas imports, it has emerged today as a pioneer in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) markets, having launched one of the world’s first floating LNG import facilities, the Klaipeda FSRU. It now imports gas from a variety of countries such as Norway, Qatar, and even the United States. At the Vilnius Energy Forum in late November last year, the government and energy sector leaders highlighted how they now share their experience with other energy-vulnerable states.
Today, Lithuania and other countries of the former Iron Curtain who have chosen democracy are safer, more prosperous, better integrated with the world, and are endowed with the greatest potential in their modern history. They are success stories for their people and their allies. At the same time, the seeming backsliding of liberal democracies in countries like Hungary and Poland also highlight that democratization is not a one-way progression but rather a winding road, marked by vulnerabilities and setbacks.
There is still uncertainty to what extent President Trump and other future administrations will promote democracy abroad. Fatigue and disillusionment have set in. America’s setbacks in building democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq have overshadowed the real successes of democracy in most of Central and Eastern Europe. While the National Security Strategy released in December states that Washington will “not impose our values on others,” it also reiterates that American democracy “serves as an inspiration for those living under tyranny.” How policymakers will navigate these broad guidelines remains to be seen.
What the case of Lithuania has shown is that many countries and their societies do not need convincing about the benefits of democracy and market economies, but do seek Washington’s support in meeting their aspirations. The road to self-government that Woodrow Wilson outlined a century ago is long and can be difficult—but it is worth following nonetheless.