Reflecting on 30 years of Renewed Independence at AABS 2022: Interview with Joseph Ellis

May 2, 2022

The AABS 2022 Conference will look toward the future to explore how the Baltic States will move forward into the next century, as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Nordic and Eastern Europe. Similarly, the field of Baltic Studies is at a crossroads between new and old diaspora communities negotiating the implications of what it means to advance the study and research of the Baltic States into the next century. The conference will promote intersections of academic disciplines, scholarship, and community by focusing on the implications for the Baltic States in the future at the crossroads of different regions, cultures, religions, and historical perspectives. Please find more information here, and registration here.

On Friday, May 27, Joseph Ellis (Wingate University) will moderate a panel entitled “Reflecting on Thirty Years of Baltic Independence.” The panel is described as follows:

The year 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. Much has changed in the Baltic region since 1991 — politically, economically, and culturally. This roundtable will reflect on those dynamic changes and what the future might hold for the region going forward. The roundtable includes three well-regarded Baltic scholars: Indra Ekmanis of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Clinton Glenn, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, and Dovilė Budrytė, Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Faculty at Georgia Gwinnett College. Indra Ekmanis will discuss ethnic integration as well as draw on insights from Latvia. Clinton Glenn will discuss issues related to human rights, and LGBTQ+ issues in the Baltics, especially in Estonia. Dovilė Budrytė will reflect on independence in Lithuania, broadly defined.

AABS met with Dr. Ellis to discuss the panel and what he’s looking forward to at the conference. The transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Joseph M. Ellis (PhD, Temple University) grew up in East Tennessee and received his undergraduate degree in Political Science from Winthrop University. He is Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Wingate University in Wingate, NC. His research interests include public policy, ideology, comparative politics and post-communist political and economic transitions. His regional expertise includes the former Soviet Union, particularly the Baltic States. He travels frequently to Estonia for research, and takes students to the Baltic States for study abroad experiences.

AABS: The panel brings together scholars with expertise in all three Baltic countries and in a variety of fields. What was the impetus behind the creation of this panel?

JE: I think in terms of anniversaries, and when I reflected on this particular conference, the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union was a fairly momentous occasion. One of the things I was thinking about in my own scholarship was, “What does the last thirty years mean for the Baltic states?” And then, “What does the future look like?” When I organized this panel, I had representation from various scholars in different fields throughout the Baltic states, and in different disciplines as well, but my thought was, “Is there a way to think about the Baltic states without ever referencing Russia?” Is there this true cultural and narrative independence, where you can say Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia, and you don’t have to say “former Soviet republic.”

When I organized this panel, I was quite optimistic that I could make this argument, and then Russia invaded Ukraine. So what I’m going to do at the panel is open with some remarks on some of my scholarship but also, intellectually, how I’ve been trying to process. I study Estonia primarily, and Estonia, for me, was moving towards what I call normal political problems: domestic infighting, things that involve Estonians and no one else. And then Russia invades Ukraine.

Dovilė, Indra, and Clinton have varied expertise, and I’m looking forward to their insights. Clinton has a very comparative look with the work that they’re doing, and part of their inclusion in the panel is for the work they’re doing studying gender identity, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues in the area. It’s something that needs to be explored more. Dovilė and Indra provide a deep historical perspective, and there’s Indra’s perspective on the role that the media plays in all this. And then there’s my role to try to bring it all together, to find where there are common themes or differences.

The intention of this panel was to think beyond Russia, and I think that will be largely impossible now.

AABS: In light of the invasion of Ukraine, and in light of the motivation for this panel, what does independence mean for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at this moment in history?

JE: First off, I would say that some might bristle at the title of the panel, because the Baltic states did have a period of independence that preceded Soviet occupation. Most of the western world, including the United States, did not recognize, and certainly the Baltic states themselves did not recognize, the takeover of their countries. But I think if you look at the interwar period, independence was tenuous. They were not a part of NATO or enmeshed in western institutions. They had small militaries. They were prone to being taken over, unfortunately. So looking at independence in this post-91 era, all the Baltic states have enmeshed themselves in these institutions; they’re part of NATO, they’re part of the EU, they’re in the Eurozone. This has led to a stronger type of independence than before.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues said that for many people in the Baltics, after watching Russia’s performance in Ukraine militarily, they sleep pretty well at night. Certainly I do not think that’s something that could have been said in 1939, when the Baltic states had very small militaries and the Soviet Union and Germany were much larger and more aggressive. So I think that there’s an independence that is real, and meaningful, and I hope that comes through in the panel.

AABS: What would you say your average AABS conference attendee would learn from this panel?

JE: I think the wisdom of the panel, and the reason for my organizing it, was for the purpose of reflection. Where have we been? Where have we come from? Where are we going? It’s both reflecting on the past, but looking forward as well. That forward looking-ness looks different if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine. The future is a bit different.

Nevertheless, and this is a bit of an answer to your previous question, we can talk about the Baltic states as independent places. We don’t have to connect them together. The problems of Lithuania, per se, are not the problems of Estonia. And their successes too. That itself is a form of independence, as it were, that these are three distinct places. They have commonalities, yes, they work together frequently, but the domestic challenges and domestic successes are their own.

In a nutshell, it’s a time for reflection. Where have we come from, where are we going. And maybe this refers not only to the reality of the people who live in those places, but also for AABS thinking about the future as well.