Balticum is the geographic term used in local languages, Scandinavian languages, and in German for the territory of the Baltic states and historical East Prussia. In a historical context it includes the lands of:
Prior to World War II, Finland was sometimes considered, particularly by the Soviet Union, a fourth Baltic state. For example in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Nazi Germany agreed to mention Finland as one of the Baltic States, thereby indirectly relinquishing Finland to the Soviet sphere of interest. Since then, the Finnish view that Finland is one of the Nordic countries has become generally accepted.
Despite the common name, some people point out that the three Baltic countries have little in common. Estonia wishes to become yet another Nordic country, while Lithuania focuses on its connection to Poland and Central Europe.
The Baltic countries are often considered to be part of Eastern Europe, both geographically and, due to the historical influence of Poland, Russia and the Soviet Union, culturally. Due to the historical impact of the Hanseatic League and especially Estonia's and Latvia'Finland" title ="Finland">Finland and Sweden, they may be also considered a part of Northern Europe. A compromise terminology for the Baltic States is Northeastern Europe.
The term Baltic states differs from the term Baltic sea countries which refers to all the countries bordering the Baltic.
Some political scientists consider Lithuania as part of Central Europe, because it shares few common influences with the other two countries, for example, Swedish and German ones.
The common history of the Baltic States began when the Sword Brethren brought Christianity and feudalism to the region. These countries subsequently became a battlefield between Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia and Germany.
In the 18th and 19th century the Baltic provinces (Curonia, Livonia, Estonia and Ingria) and Lithuania in the 19th century, albeit with names and borders different from the present-day countries, were part of the Russian Empire.
The Baltic States gained (or regained in case of Lithuania) their sovereignty as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1918, in the aftermath of World War I, when the new Bolshevik government of Russia released the provinces into independence.
In 1940, under the terms of the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of interest, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, Latvia, and later Lithuania. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and occupied the Baltic region. By late 1944, the Soviet Army, driving the German occupants back West, reached the region again, and re-established control by early 1945. The Baltic States were established as the Estonian SSR, the Latvian SSR and the Lithuanian SSR as constituent parts of the Soviet Union.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the three Baltic states declared their independence in 1989 and 1990 and their independence was recognized by the Soviet Union on September 6, 1991.
Rather than new states, they declared themselves to be in fact restorations of the pre-war republics that had existed between the first and second world wars. This further emphasized their contention (adhered to worldwide, but contested for propaganda purposes by some Russian governments) that Soviet domination during the Cold War period had been an illegal occupation.
In 2002 the Baltic states took the first steps towards the realization of their long standing political goal (and their principal objective since leaving the Soviet Union), integration with Western Europe, by applying to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Membership of NATO was duly achieved on 29 March 2004 and accession to the EU took place on 1 May 2004.
Although the three nations have much in common in their history and culture they belong to two distinct language families.
- The Latvian and Lithuanian languages make up the group of Baltic languages and belong to the Indo-European languages family.
- The Estonian language on the other hand belongs to the group of Finno-Ugric languages in the Uralic languages family, sharing close cultural and historical ties with the Finnish language and culture.
They also belong to different Christian denominations:
- Latvia and Estonia are mostly Lutheran protestant (except for Russian minorities in these countries which are Orthodox), while
- Lithuania is principally Catholic.
Due to a long period of Germanic domination, starting in the middle ages, German language has an important role. Its role has somewhat diminished after World War II but it remains one of three main foreign languages taught in schools (the other two being English and Russian). The Baltic states have historically also been in the Swedish and Russian spheres of influence. Following the period of Soviet domination, ethnic Russians today make up a sizable minority in the Baltic states, particularly Estonia and Latvia.
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