2015 Baltic American conference – “History Repeated: Baltics and Eastern Europe in Peril?”

This year’s conference of the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) was held in Washington D.C. on April 16th and 17th. Mai-Liis Bartling, current president of SF Estonian Society, will share her notes on the event with the readers of Eesti by the Bay:

JBANC has existed 54 years to coordinate the political advocacy efforts of the three Baltic nations, and has a track record of effective action. Not surprising, given events in Eastern Europe, this year’s conference took on a special urgency and was well attended.

One couldn’t but be impressed with the conference’s serious, purposeful tone as well as the proportion of younger attendees. JBANC Managing director Karl Altau gets much of the credit for this, and for assembling the impressive program.

There was unanimous recognition of the current threat to the Baltics and all of Europe, and many common themes and action items emerged. Among the standout speakers was the current foreign minister of Latvia H.E. Dr. Artis Pabriks, who gave the keynote lunch address. Dr. Pabriks eloquently quoted Winston Churchill and spoke of the need for resolve, pointing out that resolve on the homefront is a strong deterrent.

Among the more controversial discussions, where debate was real, was on whether offering Russia an “offramp” can produce any good result and whether drawing “red lines” helped or constrained future options.

Underscoring the importance of this year’s conference was the attendance of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.  His basic message: we must all do more.

The two days were so full that I filled an entire notepad, and it was not easy to come up with a list of take-aways, but here are 10 themes that were reinforced throughout the conference, followed by a list of possible actions.

  1. Russian aggression is to blame for events in Ukraine. While the Baltics are among the new “frontline states,” it is a European and US problem, too.
  2. While new levels of support from NATO are very appreciated, there was consensus among panelists that permanent bases in the Baltics are needed.
  3. The new Minsk agreement is being violated on daily basis; there was also consensus that lethal defensive weapons should be provided to Ukraine.
  4. To preserve a strong Europe, it’s important that Ukraine is successful, and an offer of EU membership can help keep it on track.
  5. The agenda for a strong Europe should also include: diversifying energy supplies, negotiating trade agreements, stronger regional coordination between the Baltics and their neighbors, continued policies of integration.
  6. We in the west have been behind the curve in the information war, for complex reasons that have much to do with the state of journalism more generally in this age of the internet.
  7. Russian media has been proactive in obliterating the line between fact and opinion, sowing doubt and confusion, and encouraging a view that the west is crumbling.
  8. Add to this the very specific “compatriots policy” of targeting Russian speakers and building their loyalty.
  9. While much effort has gone into trying to decipher the intentions of Vladimir Putin, at heart he is an opportunist and gangster concerned with this own survivial.   A government that treats its own people poorly cannot be a good neighbor.
  10. Actions are needed top down and bottom up, including restoring an effective  national security structure.   But don’t think that the actions of others are enough or that others will do it for us, we must also feel individually empowered to act.

So what could be done? Panelists suggested many ways to get involed:

  1. Advocate for policies – panelists urged advocacy for lethal aid for Ukraine and permanent bases in the Baltics; to continue/strengthen sanctions against Russia and to remove Russia from SWIFT banking network. They also urged advocacy for a resolution comparable to Sumner Welles, which proved so helpful to the Baltics, and for direct-to-home satellite broadcasting that can serve a role comparable to that of Radio Free Europe.
  2. Start locally – visit local congressional offices. Share facts and what you are advocating. Share your heritage or connection and that you care deeply. Encourage your reps to become members of the Baltic Caucus.
  3. Continue to educate yourself – Read the CEEC’s policy paper (www.ceecoalition.us). Read books on the subject. Share and amplify facts and information within your own Baltic community. Also consider writing letters to local papers that reach out to a broader audience.
  4. Show solidarity with Ukraine. There is strength in numbers. Work/walk alongside other Baltics on these issues and in support of Ukraine and a strong Europe.
  5. Take to the streets – find/create opportunities to interest the media and broader public, for example Baltic deportation commemoration events.
  6. Use social media – use Facebook and Twitter for informational or fundraising campaigns in support of Ukraine, and to draw attention to Russia’s actions.
  7. Financially support organizations that are effective on these issues, including JBANC and EANC.

To read more about JBANC’s activities and this year’s conference, go to www.jbanc.org.


Photo courtesy of Mai-Liis Bartling, pictured here with fellow EANC council member Ilmar Vanderer:


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