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Baltic states see US connections fade

2017 marks the end of an era of Baltic leaders with backgrounds of Cold War exile in the United States. Some in the region fear it could also be a year of wider American disengagement, Richard Martyn-Hemphill reports.

In the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, refugees did not simply return home after the end of the Cold War: Three became presidents. At a bar called Vest, a trendy pit stop in Riga, the Latvian capital, for hipsters and their vintage bicycles, one of these presidents now dabbles as a DJ. 

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, first stepped onto the decks there just before he left office. His departure from Estonian politics has left an historical watermark in the Baltic: The end of a time when leaders in the region hailed from Cold War exile in North America. 

This is the first year in two decades without any such leader in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania stepped down in 2009 and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga retired two years later. 

Their lives, like thousands others, were defined by displacement from the Second World War, and the possibility - with their homelands annexed into the Soviet Union - to start a new life in the New World. For Adamkus, a resistance fighter during the war, that meant factory work in Chicago and then a stint at the Environmental Protection Agency. For Vike-Freiberga, whose childhood was spent in displaced person camps in northern Germany, she moved to Canada, where she became a professor. Ilves, who was born in Sweden to refugee parents, moved to New Jersey at the age of three.

"I had a Disneyland vision of Estonia, a Grimms' Fairy Tales vision," Ilves told DW in Vest, describing his perceptions from exile in America of what he imagined would be a mysterious land of mountains. "Then you find out there are not a lot of peaks and valleys. It's actually pretty flat."

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia

Estonia (here the capital, Tallinn) and the other Baltic states gained independence from Russia in 1991

Ilves returned after the end of the Cold War to newly independent countries alongside many others from the diaspora who were eager to put their wealth, knowledge and contacts to use behind the freshly fallen Iron Curtain. His and his cohorts' rise to the top, which was unmatched anywhere else in ex-communist Europe, epitomized a new transatlantic age for these small nations, a time defined by the brokering of US security guarantees through NATO and EU membership back in 2004.

Shared experiences, shared language

Argo Ideon, who has recently published a biography on Ilves, describes how these American roots made it easier for countries like Estonia to deepen its transatlantic connections and gain an attentive audience in the White House.

"His relations with President Bush and Obama were quite good," he said, adding that with Bush Ilves was able to relate over their shared love of various gardening appliances they used at their respective ranches. With Obama, they were both alumni of Columbia University and could speak freely and philosophically together about the future of e-democracy.

A Ukrainian truck transporting a howitzer drives down a road in eastern Ukraine

Continued fighting in eastern Ukraine contibutes to the feeling of insecurity in the Baltics

Ideon described a perception in American policymaker circles that, "It was simple to deal with Ilves." He was seen as "a very good partner for the US foreign policy establishment."

Ilves, for his part, saw it has his personal mission never to be talked down to by leaders of larger countries in North America and Western Europe, who he accused of often displaying "orientalist" views of his country and Central and Eastern Europe in general.

"There was a period in which it was beneficial," Ilves said, describing how the Baltic leaders transatlantic links and North American upbringings helped get the message of their countries heard in Washington. "It was useful for these countries to have presidents who could basically be an equal, that you couldn't patronize," because "if you did, you'd get smacked - or not smacked, but shown your place."

Exit Ilves, enter Trump

Cut to 2017, and these leaders are gone - when their transatlantic ties would arguably have been a greater asset. For some in the Baltics fear a starker prospect of American disengagement in the region is on the horizon: Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy. After a campaign spent lambasting the structure of the NATO alliance - which the Baltic states have been part of since 2004 - Trump's inaugural speech on January 20 offered scant reassurance to European allies wary of Russia's military ambitions.

From retirement, Ilves and Vike-Freiberga co-signed a letter to Trump alongside 15 other retired senior political figures from Central and Eastern Europe, including Sweden's Carl Bildt and Poland's Radoslav Sikorski. They warned that an end to sanctions would be a "grave mistake." The January 9 letter continued:  "United, we are more than a match for Russia's ailing kleptocracy. Divided, as we have seen all too clearly in recent years, we are all at risk."

And in bold: "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not seek American greatness. As your allies, we do."

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Jittery from Russia's 2014 capture of Crimea, its military involvement in eastern Ukraine and its missile build up in Kaliningrad, the Baltics are dismissive of any ideas of grand dealmaking between America and Russia that could leave them or countries exposed, like in Ukraine today or Georgia in the South Ossetia conflict of 2008.

Leaders in the Baltics were always cautious about forging agreements with Russia and had been critical of President Obama's attempt at a reset policy. The result, they fear, could lead to further escalations in an already highly militarized part of Europe.

Karl Altau, managing director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee, a lobby group in Washington, said that as much of an asset Baltic-American presidents were in their time, their presence would not have been a game changer when it comes to Trump. He was bullish, however, about how the rise of Trump had injected a new lease of life into his organization. "The Trump messages on NATO, in particular, and his continued embrace of Putin," he said, "have caused a very perceptible increase in community members who are rolling up their sleeves and engaging in grassroots outreach." 

He mentioned how they were stepping up their active briefing of Senate Foreign Relations committee members on Baltic security matters in the hopes of keeping the State Department in check.

Will Mawhood contributed reporting from Riga.

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