The term "Baltic" stems from the name of the Baltic Sea – a hydronym dating back to the 11th century (Adam of Bremen mentioned Latin: Mare Balticum) and earlier. Although there are several theories about its origin, most ultimately trace it to Indo-European root *bhel meaning white, fair. This meaning is retained in modern Baltic languages, where baltas (in Lithuanian) and balts (in Latvian) mean "white". However the modern names of the region and the sea, that originate from this root, were not used in either of the two languages prior to the 19th century.
Beginning in the Middle Ages and through the present day, the Baltic Sea appears on the maps described in Germanic languages as German: Ostsee, Danish: Østersøen, Dutch: Oostzee, Swedish: Östersjön, etc. In English "Ost" is "East", and in fact, the Baltic Sea mostly lies to the east for Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
In the 13th century pagan Baltic and Finnic peoples in the region became a target of the Northern Crusades. In the aftermath of the Livonian crusade, a crusader state officially named Terra Mariana, but also known as Livonia, was established in the territory of modern Latvia and Southern Estonia. It was divided into four autonomous bishoprics and lands of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. After the Brothers of the Sword suffered defeat at the Battle of Saule, the remaining Brothers were integrated into the Teutonic Order as the autonomous Livonian Order. Northern Estonia initially became a Danish dominion, but it was purchased by the Teutonic Order in the mid-14th century. The majority of the crusaders and clergy were German and remained influential in Estonia and most of Latvia until the first half of the 20th century - Baltic Germans formed the backbone of the local gentry, and German served both as a lingua franca and for record-keeping.
The Lithuanians were also targeted by the crusaders, however they were able to resist and formed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania some time before 1252. It allied with the Kingdom of Poland. After the Union of Krewo in 1385 created a dynastic union between the two countries, they became ever more closely integrated and finally merged into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. After victory in the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War, the Polish–Lithuanian union became a major political power in the region.
In 1558 Livonia was attacked by the Tsardom of Russia and the Livonian war broke out, lasting until 1583. The rulers of different regions within Livonia sought to ally with foreign powers, which resulted in Polish–Lithuanian, Swedish and Danish involvement. As a result, by 1561 the Livonian confederation had ceased to exist and its lands in modern Latvia and Southern Estonia became the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and the Duchy of Livonia, which were vassals to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Osel island came under Danish rule and Northern Estonia became the Swedish Duchy of Estonia. In the aftermath of later conflicts of the 17th century, much of the Duchy of Livonia and Osel also came under Swedish control as Swedish Livonia. These newly acquired Swedish territories, as well as Ingria and Kexholm (now the western part of the Leningrad Oblast of Russia), became known as the Baltic Dominions (Swedish: Östersjöprovinserna). Parts of the Duchy of Livonia that remained in the Commonwealth became Inflanty Voivodeship, which contributed to the modern Latgale region of Eastern Latvia becoming culturally distinct from the rest of Latvia as the German nobility lost its influence and the region remained Catholic just like Poland-Lithuania, while the rest of Latvia (and also Estonia) became Lutheran.
At the beginning of the 18th century the Swedish Empire was attacked by a coalition of several European powers in the Great Northern War. Among these powers was Russia, seeking to restore its access to the Baltic Sea. During the course of the war it conquered all of the Swedish provinces on the Eastern Baltic coast. This acquisition was legalized by the Treaty of Nystad in which the Baltic Dominions were ceded to Russia. The treaty also granted the Baltic-German nobility within Estonia and Livonia the rights to self-government, maintaining their financial system, existing customs border, Lutheran religion, and the German language; this special position in the Russian Empire was reconfirmed by all Russian Tsars from Peter the Great to Alexander II. Under Russian rule these territories came to be known as Ostsee Governorates (Russian: Остзейские губернии). Initially these were two governorates named after the largest cities: Riga and Reval (now Tallinn). After the Partitions of Poland which took place in the last quarter of the 18th century, the third Ostsee governorate was created, as the Courland Governorate (presently a part of Latvia). This toponym stems from the Curonians, one of the Baltic indigenous tribes. Following the annexation of Courland the two other governates were renamed to the Governorate of Livland and the Governorate of Estland.
As a result of the Partitions of Poland from 1772 to 1795, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist and its territories were incorporated into the Russian empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Empire.
Endre Bojtár (1999) argues that it was around the 1840s when the German gentry of the Governorate of Livonia devised the term "Balts" to mean themselves, the German upper classes of Livonia, excluding the Latvian and Estonian lower classes. They spoke an exclusive dialect, baltisch-deutsch, legally spoken by them alone. However the German philologist Georg Nesselmann in the middle of the 19th century substantiated the concept that Latvian, Lithuanian and Old Prussian belong to the same branch of the Indo-European languages, which he suggested to name as Baltic languages It was at this time when "Baltic" also started to surpass "Ostsee" as the name for the region. Officially its Russian equivalent "Прибалтийский" was first used in 1859.
During the 19th century the Russian Empire adopted a policy of Russification. Its impementation was especially harsh in the former lands of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (perhaps due to the Baltic German élite being seen as generally loyal to the tsar.) Poland and Lithuania, however, experienced not only a requirement to switch to Cyrillic but even a ban on print publications in the local languages and corporal punishment if students were caught speaking the local languages at school (see: Lithuanian book smugglers). Latgale, (the former Inflanty Voivodeship), at the time a part of the Vitebsk Governorate (with parts of modern-day Belarus), shared this experience with the rest of Poland and Lithuania.
After the First World War the term "Baltic States" was used to refer to countries by the Baltic sea that had gained independence from Russia in its aftermath. As such it included not only former Baltic governorates, but also Latgale, Lithuania and Finland. During the Interwar period these countries were sometimes referred to as limitrophe states between the two World Wars, from the French, indicating their collectively forming a rim along Bolshevik Russia's, later the Soviet Union's, western border. They were also part of what Clemenceau considered a strategic cordon sanitaire, the entire territory from Finland in the north to Romania in the south, standing between Western Europe and potential Bolshevik territorial ambitions.
Prior to World War II Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania each experienced an authoritarian head of state who had come to power after a bloodless coup: Konstantin Päts in Estonia (1934), Kārlis Ulmanis in Latvia (1934), and Antanas Smetona in Lithuania (1926). Some note that the events in Lithuania differed from its two more northerly neighbors, with Smetona having different motivations as well as securing power 8 years before any such events in Latvia or Estonia took place. Despite considerable political turmoil in Finland no such events took place there. Finland did however get embroiled in a bloody civil war, something that did not happen in the Baltics. Some controversy surrounds the Baltic authoritarian régimes – due to the general stability and rapid economic growth of the period (even if brief) some avoid the label "authoritarian"; others, however, condemn such an "apologetic" attitude (see, for example: Later assessments in Kārlis Ulmanis.)
In accordance with a secret protocol within the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that divided Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, the Soviet Army entered eastern Poland in September 1939, and then coerced Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into mutual assistance treaties which granted them the right to establish military bases in these. In June 1940, the Red Army occupied all of the territory of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Red Army installed new, pro-Soviet governments in all three countries. Following rigged elections, in which only pro-communist candidates were allowed to run, the newly "elected" parliaments of the three countries formally applied to "join" the Soviet Union in August 1940 and were incorporated into it as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into the Soviet Union as Soviet republics, they were informally grouped as "Baltic republics" (прибалтийские республики).
Repressions, executions and mass deportations followed after that in the Baltics. Deportations were used as a part of the Soviet Union's attempts, along with instituting the Russian Language as the only working language and other such tactics, at sovietization of its occupied territories. More than 200,000 people were deported by the Soviet government from the Baltic in 1940-1953 to remote, inhospitable areas of the Soviet Union. In addition, at least 75,000 were sent to Gulag. 10% of the entire adult Baltic population was deported or sent to labor camps. (See June deportation, Soviet deportations from Estonia, Sovietization of the Baltic states)
The Soviet control of the Baltic states was interrupted by Nazi German invasion of this region in 1941. Initially, many Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians considered the Germans as liberators from the Soviet Union. The Baltic countries hoped for the restoration of independence, but instead the Germans established civil administration, known as the Reichskommissariat Ostland. During the occupation the Germans carried out discrimination, mass deportations and mass killings generating Baltic resistance movements. The German occupation lasted until late 1944 (in Courland, until early 1945), when the countries were reoccupied by the Red Army and Soviet rule was re-established, with the passive agreement of the United States and Britain (see Yalta Conference and Potsdam Agreement).
The forced collectivisation of agriculture began in 1947, and was completed after the mass deportation in March 1949 (see Operation Priboi). Private farms were confiscated, and farmers were made to join the collective farms. In all three countries, Baltic partisans, known colloquially as the Forest Brothers, Latvian national partisans, and Lithuanian partisans, waged unsuccessful guerrilla warfare against the Soviet occupation for the next eight years in a bid to regain their nations' independence. Although the armed resistance was defeated, the population remained anti-Soviet.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were considered to be under Soviet occupation by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, NATO, and many other countries and international organizations. During the Cold War period Lithuania and Latvia maintained legations in Washington, DC, while Estonia had a mission in New York. Each was staffed, initially by diplomats from the last governments before USSR occupation.
In the late 1980s a massive campaign of civil resistance against Soviet rule, known as the Singing Revolution, began. Baltic Way was one of the most spectacular events when a two-million-strong human chain stretched for 600 km from Tallinn to Vilnius on 23 August 1989. In the wake of this campaign Gorbachev's government had privately concluded that the departure of the Baltic republics had become "inevitable". This process contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union setting a precedent for the other Soviet republics to secede from the USSR. Soviet Union recognized the independence of three Baltic states on 6 September 1991. There was a subsequent withdrawal of troops from the region (starting from Lithuania) in August 1993. The last Russian troops were withdrawn from there in August 1994. Skrunda-1, the last Russian military radar in the Baltics, officially suspended operations in August 1998.
The Baltic countries are located in Northern Europe, and because each has access to the sea, it is able to interact with many European countries. All three countries are parliamentary democracies, which have unicameral parliaments that are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms – Riigikogu in Estonia, Saeima in Latvia and Seimas in Lithuania. In Latvia and Estonia, the president is elected by parliament while Lithuania has a semi-presidential system where the president is elected by popular vote. All are parts of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Each of the three countries has declared itself to be the restoration of the sovereign nation that had existed from 1918 to 1940, emphasizing their contention that Soviet domination over the Baltic nations during the Cold War period had been an illegal occupation and annexation.
The same legal interpretation is shared by the United States, the United Kingdom, and all other Western democracies, who held the forcible incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union to be illegal. At least formally, the Western democracies never considered the three Baltic states to be constituent parts of the Soviet Union. Australia was a brief exception to this support of Baltic independence: In 1974, the Labor government of Australia did recognize Soviet dominion, but this decision was reversed by the next Australian Parliament.
After the Baltic states had restored their independence, integration with Western Europe became a major strategic goal. In 2002, the Baltic nations applied for membership in NATO and the EU. All three became NATO members on 29 March 2004, and accessed to the EU on 1 May 2004. The Baltic States are currently the only former-Soviet states that have joined either organization.
During the Baltic struggle for independence 1989–1992, a personal friendship developed between the (at that time unrecognized) Baltic ministers of foreign affairs and the Nordic ministers of foreign affairs. This friendship led to the creation of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in 1992, and the EuroFaculty in 1993.
Between 1994 and 2004, the BAFTA free trade agreement was established to help prepare the countries for their accession to the EU, rather than out of the Baltic states' desire to trade among themselves. The Baltic countries were more interested in gaining access to the rest of the European market.
Currently, the governments of the Baltic states cooperate in multiple ways, including cooperation among presidents, parliament speakers, heads of government, and foreign ministers. On 8 November 1991, the Baltic Assembly, which includes 15 to 20 MPs from each parliament, was established to facilitate inter-parliamentary cooperation.The Baltic Council of Ministers was established on 13 June 1994 to facilitate intergovernmental cooperation. Since 2003, there is coordination between the two organizations.
Compared with other regional groupings in Europe, such as Nordic council or Visegrad Four, Baltic cooperation is rather limited. Possible explanations include the short history of restored sovereignty and fear of losing it again, along with an orientation toward Nordic countries and Baltic-Nordic cooperation in The Nordic-Baltic Eight. Estonia especially has attempted to construct a Nordic identity for itself and denounced Baltic identity, despite still seeking to preserve close relationship with other countries in the region.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been members of both the EU and NATO since 2004. Today the three countries are liberal democracies and their market economies in recent years have undergone rapid expansion in the early 2000s. However, the economies were hard-hit by the financial crisis of 2007–2010. According to projections by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the GDP based on purchasing power parity decreased by 13% to 17% from 2008 to 2009.
The Baltic states had the highest growth rates in Europe between 2000 and 2006, and this continued in 2007. In 2006 the economy in Estonia grew by 11.2% in GDP, while the Latvian economy grew by 11.9% and Lithuania by 7.5%. All three countries saw their rates of unemployment fall below the EU average by February 2006. Currently, all three Baltic States are classified as "high income" economies by the World Bank. Estonia adopted the euro in January 2011, Latvia in January 2014, and Lithuania in January 2015.
However, due to the global economic crisis, the Baltic economies in 2008 were fragile and the previous fast growth had switched to recession in Estonia and Latvia by the end of 2008, followed by Lithuania in 2009. In 2009, unemployment rate rose to 13.7% in Lithuania, 17.3% in Latvia and 13.8% in Estonia, as compared to a "Advanced Europe" level of 8.8% (the 2009 unemployment rate in so called "Emerging Europe" countries was higher but still below that found in the Baltic states). Over the course of 2011, the unemployment rates were expected to rise even further, despite an expected recovery in output. In 2009, real aggregate GDP fell by 14.8% in Lithuania, by 18% in Latvia and 13.9% in Estonia, compared to an overall fall of 3.7% among all countries in the "Emerging Europe" group. Output was expected to recover somewhat in Lithuania and Estonia, with projected growth rates of 1.3% and 1.8% respectively, while in Latvia GDP was expected to fall by further 1%. Although Estonia had so far succeeded on keeping its debt levels one of the lowest in the European Union, the southern Baltic states were in a more difficult situation. Rather defaulting on debt in the lead-up to the sub-prime mortgage crash, the Latvian government had responded to EU and IMF pressure by taking on private debt. Latvia accepted a 7.5 billion euro EU–IMF loan.
Estonians and the small-numbered Livonian people in Latvia are descended from the Baltic Finns, sharing closely related languages and a common cultural ancestry. The Latvians and Lithuanians, linguistically and culturally related to each other, are descended from the Balts, an Indo-European people and culture. The peoples comprising the Baltic states have together inhabited the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea for millennia, although not always peacefully in ancient times, over which period their populations, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian have remained remarkably stable within the approximate territorial boundaries of the current Baltic states. While separate peoples with their own customs and traditions, historical factors have introduced cultural commonalities across and differences within them.
The population of the Baltic countries belong to different Christian denominations, a reflection of historical circumstances. Both Western and Eastern Christianity had been introduced by the end of the first millennium. The current divide between Lutheranism to the north and Catholicism to the south is the remnant of Swedish and Polish hegemony, respectively, with Orthodox Christianity remaining the dominant faith among Russian and other East Slavic minorities.
The Baltic states have historically been in many different spheres of influence, from Danish over Swedish and Polish-Lithuanian, to German (Hansa and Holy Roman Empire), and before independence in the Russian sphere of influence.
Currently, the Baltic states have considerable Slavic populations: Latvia is 34.5% Slavic (including 26.7% Russian, 3.3% Belarusian, 2.2% Ukrainian, and 2.2% Polish), 28.8% of Estonia is Slavic (mostly Russian), and 13.8% of Lithuania is Slavic (including 6.5% Polish and 5.3% Russian).
The Soviet Union conducted a policy of Russification by encouraging Russians and other Russian-speaking ethnic groups of the Soviet Union to settle in the Baltic Republics. Today, ethnic Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants make up a sizable minority in the Baltic states, particularly in Latvia (about one-quarter of the total population and close to one-half in the capital Riga) and Estonia (one-quarter of the population).
Because the three Baltic states had been occupied by Soviet Union later than other territories (hence, e.g., the higher living standard), there was a strong feeling of national identity (often labeled "bourgeois nationalism" by Soviets) and popular resentment towards the imposed Soviet rule in the three countries, in combination with Soviet cultural policy, which employed superficial multiculturalism (in order for the Soviet Union to appear as a multinational union based on free will of peoples) in limits allowed by the Communist "internationalist" (but in effect pro-Russification) ideology and under tight control of the Communist Party (those of the Baltic nationals who crossed the line were called "bourgeois nationalists" and repressed). This let Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians preserve a high degree of Europe-oriented national identity. In Soviet times this made them appear as the "West" of the Soviet Union in the cultural and political sense, thus as close to emigration a Russian could get without leaving the Soviet Union.
The languages of Baltic nations belong to two distinct language families. The Latvian and Lithuanian languages belong to the Indo-European language family and are the only extant members of the Baltic language group (or more specifically, Eastern Baltic subgroup of Baltic). The Estonian and Livonian language, on the other hand, are not Indo-European languages and instead they belong to the Balto-Finnic branch of the Uralic languages, being closely related to the Finnish language. Livonian language however has had an important role in the development of Latvian. For example, the fixed first syllable stress in Latvian owes its existence to Livonian influence. Lithuanian, in turn, has retained the archaic mobile stress system, among other examples.)
Apart from the indigenous languages, German was the dominant language in Estonia and Latvia in academics, professional life, and upper society from the 13th century until World War I. Polish served a similar function in Lithuania. Numerous Swedish loanwords have made it into the Estonian language; it was under the Swedish rule that schools were established and education propagated in the 17th century. Swedish remains spoken in Estonia, particularly the Estonian Swedish dialect of the Estonian Swedes of northern Estonia and the islands (though many fled to Sweden as the Soviet Union invaded and re-occupied Estonia in 1944). There is also significant proficiency in Finnish in Estonia owing to its closeness to the native Estonian and also the widespread practice of listening to Finnish broadcasts during the Soviet era. Russian also achieved significant usage particularly in commerce.
Russian was the most commonly studied foreign language at all levels of schooling during the Soviet era. Despite schooling available and administration conducted in local languages, Russian settlers were neither encouraged nor motivated to learn the official local languages, so knowledge of Russian became a practical necessity in daily life. Even to this day, a majority of all Baltic inhabitants (regardless of ethnicity) profess to be proficient in Russian, especially among those who lived during Soviet rule.
During the Soviet era, the Baltic countries did not enter international sports competitions as an independent nation.
Basketball is a notable sport across the Baltic states. Teams from the three countries compete in the respective national championships and the Baltic Basketball League. The Lithuanian teams have been the strongest, with the BC Žalgiris winning the 1999 FIBA Euroleague.
The Lithuania men's national basketball team has won the EuroBasket on three occasions and has claimed third place at the 2010 World Cup and three Olympic tournaments. Meanwhile, the Latvia men's national basketball team won the 1935 Eurobasket and finished second in 1939, but has performed poorly since the 1990s. Lithuania hosted the Eurobasket in 1939 and 2011, whereas Latvia was one of the hosts in 2015. The historic Lithuanian basketball team Kauno Žalgiris won the Euroleague in 1999. However, the Latvia women's national basketball team finished fourth at the 2007 Eurobasket.
Ice hockey is also popular in Latvia. Dinamo Riga is the country's strongest hockey club, playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. The 2006 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships were held in Latvia.
Association football is popular in the Baltic states, but have claimed poor results in international competitions. They play the Baltic Cup since 1928.
Estonian and Soviet chess grandmaster Paul Keres was among the world's top players from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. He narrowly missed a chance at a World Chess Championship match on five occasions. Estonian Markko Märtin was successful World Rally Championship in the early 2000, where he got five wins and 18 podiums, as well as a third place in the 2004 standings.
Latvian tennis player Ernests Gulbis was a semifinalist at the 2010 Rome Masters and 2014 French Open.
All three are Parliamentary republics, joined the European Union on 1 May 2004, share EET time zone/EEST schedules and euro currency.