Sunday, April 22, 2018

Five Significant Differences between Lithuania and Latvia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 22 – For those in the West and especially in the United States who are concerned with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there are few greater challenges than convincing people that these are three very different countries despite their size, geographical propinquity, and some of their histories in the last century.

            But this challenge must be met because often, the assumption that they are alike rather than three distinct countries leads to policies with unintended consequences. As someone who has followed the three for more than 30 years, the author has seen this again and again. (Cf. his “The Baltics: Three States, Three Fates,” Current History, October 1964, pp. 332-336).
            Now, from an unexpected source, comes a useful comparison of two of them, one that underscores just how different they are. That source, Aleksandr Nosovich on the RuBaltic portal, who is hardly a friend of the Baltic countries, lists five ways in which the two Baltic countries differ (

            First, the two countries differ in the political history and in the countries which have influenced them most. Lithuania has had a state for centuries, albeit frequently interrupted by periods of foreign rule and was most influenced by Poland. Latvia, in contrast, did not form a state until 1918 and has been influenced more by Germany.

            Second, Nosovich says, the two differ in the ethnic composition of their population. Eighty-four percent of the population of Lithuania consists of ethnic Lithuanians with small Polish (6 percent) and ethnic Russian (5 percent) minorities. Most of the population are Roman Catholics.

            Latvia represents a sharp contrast, he suggests. Only 62 percent of its people are of the titular nationality, with sizeable Russian, Belarusian and other minorities. Lutheranism is most common among Latvians; Orthodoxy among the others. Nosovich says the Latgals are a separate nation, something many Latvians now contest.

            Third, the Russian commentator says, 12 percent of the population of Latvia consists of non-citizens, while in Lithuania there aren’t really any such people.  Nosovich says that the Latvians, like the Estonians, discriminated against ethnic Russians in depriving them of citizenship after 1991 while Lithuania adopted “a zero option.”

            That last assertion is simply not true. The three Baltic countries having been occupied by the Soviet Union did not have any obligation to grant citizenship to those moved in by the occupiers. Latvia, like Estonia, established a set of requirements such people have to meet, and the fact that most ethnic Russians have taken advantage of that says a lot.

            Lithuania, Nosovich’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, did not adopt the zero option the Soviet republics did. It insisted that those who were not citizens or the descendants of citizens of the pre-war republic not only had to apply for citizenship but had to give up citizenship in other states, not what the former union republics did.

            Fourth, the two countries have different political systems. Lithuania is a parliamentary-presidential system in which the president is directly elected by the people and “has real power.” Latvia, in contrast, is a parliamentary republic whose president is chosen by the parliament and has a primarily representational function.

            And fifth, the two countries differ in the relationship between the capital city and the regions.   In Latvia, most people live in Riga or adjoining urban areas; and it is in the capital that the economy is concentrated. In Lithuania, Nosovich says, “the significant of the capital is much less” because of the importance of other cities like Kaunas and Klaipeda.

            There are of course many other differences between these two NATO and EU member countries, but perhaps one measure not reported by Nosovich  but indicative of the differing  influence Russia has had on these two countries in the past is in the number of statues of Lenin in each of them.

            At one point, a Russian news outlet says, there were 112 statues of the founder of the Soviet state, a figure more than that for Estonia and Lithuania taken together (

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