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I was posted in Sweden during 2002-2005 when we were concurrently accredited to Latvia and had the good fortune of getting to know the region and travel extensively while undertaking several efforts to energise the bilateral relationship through a cultural and P2P connect. Our embassies in Finland and Poland covered Estonia and Lithuania, respectively. I was happy to learn that recently the Government has decided to open a mission in Estonia which hopefully will look after the whole of the Baltic till we have missions in the other two. One thing I can safely say that these countries, despite a chequered history, are probably some of the most beautiful places to visit and the fact that they are part of the EU and tech-savvy gives them a much higher pedestal. One must travel to understand the fascinating dynamic. No wonder they are vying to get the Indian Film industry to use their scenic locales and could even become a competitive source for the post production services.
On my very first visit to Riga, I called on the Permanent Secretary in the MFA whom I had occasion to meet in Delhi in connection with the Purulia Arms drop case. After our meeting he took me around the foreign office building and made a comment that any room you will enter you will find at least one person trained in India at the Foreign Service Institute in India or under ITEC programmes. Could have been the case elsewhere too. It was a surprise even for me. A good pointer to judge the kind of good-will that existed and was useful in enriching ties. I found similar experiences and positive outlook towards India across the spectrum. In fact the Financial Times wanted to write a story on that and I got some of the Latvian ITEC Alumni to share their experience for the article. When I met the then President Vaira Vike Freiberga, at her New Year Dinner, she emphasised that India was a priority country for her.
The Baltic region has always fascinated me. Small countries yet very strategic and have often played a crucial role in international relations. They have excelled in modern technologies through extensive adaptation and compete strongly with bigger and more advanced countries. I must say that we have had some of the phenomenally successful Indian businessmen in the region who continued to act as goodwill Ambassadors between India and the region and use the Baltics as the launching pad to the larger EU, Nordic and Baltic area and assured market access. The best Indian restaurant, a fine place for international cuisine diplomacy is owned by a proud former Indian Air Force Officer Wg Cdr Chowdhry.
Overtime, India has begun to focus on small states including small island nations both in the bilateral and multilateral context. India follows a policy of mutual respect, assuring bilateral benefits, enhancing common interests, and cooperating against common threats. Before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, India collaborated with Baltic countries in the Soviet context. Some of the Indian states like Rajasthan had twinning arrangements with them. Gradual cultural and economic collaboration followed in a cordial manner, but sensitivity and curiosity deepened the ties even further and relations bloomed after they became sovereign countries.
Until recently the relationship was also given priority in the context of the European Union. However, their somewhat adversarial relationship with Moscow impedes greater collaboration in the Eurasian context at least for now. Yet, like Malta they could also play a crucial role in projecting India’s viewpoint especially as we are re-embarking on the project of an EU-India FTA. More importantly, all the three countries work closely with India in the UN and have supported India’s place as a permanent member in the UNSC. As such currently, both India and Estonia are on the UNSC as non-permanent members and can work on global imperatives including pushing for UN reforms for which closer association between them is essential.
The Baltic states could be crucial for India’s connectivity to Europe as well through the interlinkages of the North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which has begun to pick up steam once again. Experts believe that if the INSTC is to succeed in the long term and to expedite the process of establishing land-based connectivity between Europe and Asia in the short-to-medium term, INSTC member countries such as India should consider the Northern Dimension more carefully. It will be necessary to collaborate with Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in order to synchronise the INSTC with a new set of transport corridors, such as those linking the Nordic, Baltic and Arctic regions with the rest of Europe. This will also provide the Baltic countries with an alternative to the Great game played under the BRI of China or other criss-crossing trading lanes and oil and gas supply lines from other countries whose hegemonistic attitudes are feared.
India and the Baltics are democracies and follow the rule of law with convergence of values and traditions. In the climate change efforts, they again lead and collaborate as we show leadership in this domain. With its exceptional forest cover and green techno-emphasis, Latvia enjoys the 2nd highest environment index in the world. They have a tremendous cultural connection with India especially through linguistic derivations. It is believed that the Lithuanian language has its origins in Sanskrit and over 10000 words with similar meaning have already been found. Hindi and Sanskrit are taught in Vilnius University at the Centre of Indian Studies. The University of Tartu began teaching Sanskrit in 1837. The Baltic nations have a great interest in Yoga and Ayurveda and the Indian traditional medicine and culture. The University of Latvia in collaboration with the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, Coimbatore conducts Diploma courses in Ayurveda since 2015.
As the world moves towards Artificial Intelligence (AI)I driven Industrial Revolution 4.0 and the three Baltic states have acquired strategic importance by being at the forefront of technological edge and lead in Europe, India could be a great partner and a market for them. They have an acknowledged pioneering role since decades in e-governance, Hi-tech, Cyber security, e-voting, fintech, innovation, renewable energy, laser and green technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence. Estonian innovators also revolutionised online communications by inventing Skype decades ago and moved over to the digital governance and payment systems much before other major countries. Hence rightly Estonia hosts NATO’s Cooperative Defence Centre of Excellence. Hi-tech now accounts more than 15% of GDP. In the wake of pandemic, they have come up with various digital medical solutions for provision, tracking and managing health care services and are looking to work with Indian counterparts. Likewise, they could be our partners in the ambit of the International Solar Alliance as they are focussing on diversifying their energy needs and dependence from fossil fuels to renewables via technology. Lithuania has developed a particular expertise in Fintech and Agro-processing. HCL’s Operation Centre was established in Vilnius 2019 as it became the preferred infra partner for banking solutions for Barclays. Since we have also signed a MoU for Cooperation in e-Governance, Cyber Security, and digital technologies, the Baltic countries could be an integral part of our techno-diplomacy. Happily, Indian companies were the major beneficiaries of the e-Start-up Visa for Start-Up Estonia programme. They also have developed an E-Resident visa scheme which is extremely popular and efficient.
One of the major problems with most small or developing countries has been the lack of high-level visits from India while their Heads of States and Government have frequently visited. Diplomacy is the art of reciprocity and high-level visits measure the importance the visiting Head of State or Government attaches to a country. India’s relationship with the Baltics was peculiar in this respect. From the Indian side only concurrently, accredited Ambassadors were driving the interactions while they not only opened their missions in India but also sent their President/ Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers to visit India. The rare exceptions were the visit of then MOS(MEA) M J Akbar to the Baltics and that of Indian Minister of ICT & Telecom Ravi Shankar Prasad to Tallinn.
The high-level exchange deficit was eventually bridged in 2019 when Indian Vice President Shri M Venkaiah Naidu visited the three Baltic countries. This was highly significant and has really put the focus into a much higher orbit which is evident in the P2P and B2B exchanges and collaborative partnership. Thousands of Indian students are studying in their technical, engineering, and medical universities. It would be desirable to create a bridging incubator of their talent, skills and linguistic capabilities to further move the tech-partnership with the active assistance of Indian industry.
While the routine trade and investments have not yet achieved its potential, the fact remains that it has continued to grow and expand in diverse areas. Bilateral trade with all three countries is still below the $ 1bn threshold but the region has significant possibilities as an entrepot and a market. Major Indian IT companies are establishing their base in the Baltics. Reliance Jio has set up their Europe Research centre in Estonia and interestingly Mukesh Ambani was conferred Estonian E-Citizenship. Cyber Security will be an especially important area as one moves into the digitisation domain where we could jointly harness the potential of our techno-economic cooperation with the Baltics. It is also possible to work with them to set up Advanced Centres of Excellence in other countries especially in Africa. Let us not forget that ‘Small is Beautiful” and that technological ascendancy enables the Baltic countries to punch well above their weight in the 21st century.