I gave a presentation to the London Chamber of Commerce yesterday, talking about the economics of the Baltic countries. The Baltic is one of the most successful regions of Europe. However it stands next to two of the least successful places: "Kaliningrad" and Belarus.
Kaliningrad still does not know what it is or wants to be. It retains the absurd name of one of Stalin's saddest stooges- Misha Kalinin. There are other names it could have: the the Poles it is Krolewiec, to the Lithuanians it is Karaliaučius, to the long exterminated Old Prussians it was Pregnore and to the Germans of an older generation it remains the Koenigsberg of Immanuel Kant. It has, for much of its history, been an exclave- detached from the main territory of its rulers. Historically it was a detached part of Prussia and then Germany, now it is a detached part of the Russian Federation. Great plans are discussed to restore some historical buildings and to modernize and replace the generally drab and unpleasant Soviet era buildings- after all the President's wife, Ludmilla Putina is herself from the city. Yet years pass, and the decay and the wretchedness continue almost unaltered.
On the southern border of Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus too clings to the Soviet era. Led by the erratic tyrant Oleksander Lukashenka, it refuses to embrace market reforms or democratic values. Even the nasty soviet era flag (minus the hammer and sickle) has been retained, despite the fact that the traditional white-red-white triband more closely resembles the flag of modern Russia. Lukashenka is an old fashioned sort of dictator, and from the concrete ugliness of Miensk, the capital, he orders the torture and intimidation of his enemies, coupled with casual orders to murder. The opposition is brave and determined, but the Belarusian KGB (yes, it is still called that) is far from gentle. Newspapers are written and printed in Vilnius and smuggled over the border. Yet despite the oppression, there are still attempts to speak out- as the latest news from the country shows. "Europe's last dictator" is hated and feared- but there are principled and honourable men and women who will not bend the knee before this vile regime.
As the Poles of the Second World War used to say: "Za wolnosc wasza i nasza!" - For your freedom and for ours! I hope that we take more notice of and begin to support more firmly the struggle for freedom that continues on the borders of the Europe Union, not three hours flight from Britain.