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Baltic Sea States Join in Lavish Neighborhood Watch Program

August 12, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COPENHAGEN — The last time Baltic Sea cities banded together for their common good, in the Hanseatic League that dominated regional trade through the Middle Ages, this Danish capital was excluded and rivalry eventually drove the neighbors to war.

No one is making that mistake again.

A new regional alliance of Baltic Sea states that has swiftly transformed ex-Communist basket cases into thriving and reliable partners is a club deeply committed to inclusion.

Even reform laggard Russia has been dragged into the development scheme that has pooled the rich Scandinavian countries' considerable resources in what may be the modern world's most lavish program of neighborhood improvement.

"We are obliged to be of particular assistance to the Baltic states," said Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen, noting that his country is a member of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Denmark also is among the wealthiest countries in Europe, as are Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland, endowing the five states with a sense of responsibility for raising the region's general living standards to enhance security, stability and trade.

"Problems in other Baltic states have a way of becoming our problems too, so it's in our own interest to invest in the region," said Kirsi Pekuri, a project advisor with the Finnish Foreign Ministry, citing pollution, nuclear hazards and illegal immigration as some of the problems that can spill across the sea.

One of the biggest threats to the general well-being of those living around the Baltic Sea is the flood of untreated sewage piped into the sea from St. Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital that is home to 5 million. It suffers one of the most decrepit waste-treatment systems in the region.

Finland's Environment Ministry has given top priority to construction of a new waste-processing plant for the Russian city, which is among the 132 pollution "hot spots" identified in the Baltic region, said the ministry's senior advisor for Eastern European cooperation, Kristiina Isokallio.

Western European countries and the United States anted up most of the development aid for Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic during the first crucial years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But it has largely been left to the Scandinavians to lift the three former Soviet republics on the Baltic--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--out of the post-Communist doldrums.

That has been a lucky break for the Baltics because the neighbors in the region aren't only well-heeled but are among the world's most generous. Denmark and Norway both spend 1% of their gross domestic product on development aid each year--more than four times the average for the world's 24 richest countries.

That has helped Baltic ports such as Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia rebuild crumbled municipal services and lure private investments that have restored the architectural pride and economic glory of their Hanseatic days.

The regional bonding got started eight years ago on the initiative of Denmark and Germany and three years ago took on an official profile with establishment of the Baltic Council, which coordinates the aid and investment projects of the Scandinavian countries, Germany, the three former Soviet Baltic republics, Poland and Russia.

"The Baltic Sea region today is the most economically dynamic in all of Europe, even if this is a little-known success story," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, whose country currently holds the council's rotating presidency.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in government aid and billions in private investment flowing into the region, the council has become a useful forum for setting priorities and creating "synergies" by targeting resources and expertise on the most urgent projects.

The council has as much a political agenda as an economic one, because its wealthy members have assumed the role of mentor in preparing the ex-Communists, with the notable exception of Russia, for membership in the European Union and NATO.

But what stands out among the council's motives is what its bankrollers describe as a moral imperative to help neighbors long cut off by the arbitrary hand of history that imposed an ideological divide on the region.

"Generosity is justice," said Hilde F. Johnson, minister for international development and human rights in Norway, a country that doesn't even have a Baltic Sea coast but still contributes a healthy share of the council's budget. "Rich countries have a responsibility for the poor and can be decent global citizens only when they fulfill it."

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