Temporary blog of the CWI

The Baltic States: Rising discontent and workers’ struggle

By James Clement  Socialist Alternative – CWI Majority in England and Wales

Latvia and Lithuania have both experienced a recent upsurge in relatively small-scale strikes and protests against the effects of austerity. While Estonia has not had exactly the same level of struggles, discontent is rising amongst teachers and university academics, and the country could well follow suit.

Capitalism restored

In the late 1980’s, popular movements calling for the independence of the three Baltic states played a significant role in the movement that led to the collapse of the USSR. This was followed, in the 1990s, by the triumphant cries of the superiority of capitalism over socialism.

This was to be the ‘end of history’, we were told, a period in which there could be no alternative to the capitalist system; marked by a drastically changed world order, under which the Baltic States were destined to feature as the ‘exemplary’ examples of capitalism, drawn into the orbit of the Western powers. In 2004, they joined both the European Union and NATO. 

In 2015, Lithuania had a record number of foreign investors, 20% more than in the previous year. And clamours of the success of capitalism in the region continue unabated. “The people of the Baltic states revel in their hard-won personal and economic freedoms”, says one commentator, speaking of how “rewarding” the transition to capitalism was for them.

“The Baltics may become capitalist superstars” goes a headline for an article written by Peter Kohli, which includes a disclaimer about his firm having links with the three highly-profitable companies praised in the article itself. He goes on to highlight the characteristics of a ‘capitalist superstar’: “The region is pro-business, with labour costs less than 50% of those in other EU countries, flexible labour regulations, special economic zones and other tax and financial incentives offered… [The Baltic people are in many ways] more can-do and “capitalist” than the so-called capitalist countries”.

Poverty and population decline

For the working class, however, the situation is dire – and has been for years. While even the establishment in Lithuania have acknowledged the rapid rise in food prices over the last decade, wages are pitifully low. According to recent reports from the European Social Policy Network (ESPN), in both Lithuania and Estonia there is a higher rate of in-work poverty than EU averages for those with less education, as well as single-parents, part-time workers and the self-employed. 

And Eurostat reported in October this year that, of the three Baltic States, Latvia has the highest proportion of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion, at 28.4%. Lithuania was only slightly behind with 28.3%.

Estonia also has a high gender pay gap; female employees’ gross hourly wages were 18.7% lower than those of male employees in October 2018, while the gap was the largest in the financial and insurance sector.

The affordability of housing has fallen in the capital cities of Riga (Latvia) and Tallinn (Estonia), while many Latvians see a minimum income of €1,466 necessary to live a “normal life.” Minimum wages are extremely low in the Baltic States, however; the minimum wage in Estonia is currently €540 per month and €3.21 per hour, due to increase to only €584 per month (€3.48 per hour) next year following negotiations between the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL) and the Estonian Employers’ Confederation (ETTK), while in Lithuania the average wage was £166 in 2016.

The Latvian parliament, the Saeima, recently passed a law cutting the number of months that unemployment benefit can be paid from 9 months to 8. This is despite the fact that any increases in wages are offset by higher increases in retail goods.

Against this backdrop, Lithuania alone has seen its population fall by around 23%, from a peak of 3 million in 1992. In the last 25 years, 859,000 people have left; roughly the combined population of the capital city of Vilnius and major city of Kaunas.  Many of these are young people, who have gone abroad to countries like Britain, Norway or Germany, in search of better wages than they can earn at home.

Large numbers of workers have also left neighbouring Latvia; between 2000 and 2013, 259,000 people left, with just over 4000 young people leaving in 2012 alone. A 2013 article by the Baltic News Network reported that Latvia’s population had decreased by 9.8% in the previous four years, with 19% of 25-year-olds having left. Ireland has one of the largest Latvian communities, with almost 20,000 Latvians living there in spring 2016. 43% of Latvians living there are aged between 25 and 39.

Latvia’s government has tried to beg migrants to return; a 2016 government campaign had the slogan “I want you back”, asking those Latvians still in the country to “send personal messages to friends and family elsewhere, imploring them to return.”

Lithuania’s ‘brain drain’ problem has been so severe that, while in 2005 there were 93 elderly people for every 100 children in Lithuania, by early 2017 the ratio had become 130 elderly people to 100 children. Consequently, an anti-emigration party, the Peasants and Green Union (LGPU) went from having just one MP to gaining enough seats to form a coalition government in recent years. To try and stem the tide of outward migration, the Lithuanian government is trying to create jobs and gain more foreign investment. It also plans to provide more assistance with housing for young people, as well as exempt young workers with their first job from social security contribution payments, which can take up to a third of peoples’ wages in Lithuania. 

However, no lasting solution can be found under a capitalist system; some have pointed out that social security payment exemptions will just leave workers with less money in their pensions in later life. 

Hand in hand with pitifully low wages are the cuts to services that have characterised the neoliberal model of austerity across much of Europe, under the auspices of the European Union. And it is this model of austerity that has pushed different groups of workers into struggle over pay and funding of services.

Workers in struggle

In Estonia, academics went on strike earlier in this year over pay and conditions, as well as funding for universities, while in September school teachers criticised the low pay rises they were due. 

But the most significant level of action has taken place in Latvia and Lithuania in the last two years, involving teachers, doctors, health workers, academics/university workers, firefighters, farmers and truck drivers!

Latvia

The Saiema promised last year to increase doctors’ pay by an average of 20% in 2020, providing €120 million for this. However, they reneged on this promise; the 2020 budget adopted on November 14th – and positively endorsed by the European Commission – instead allocates only €60 million for doctors’ pay.

The Latvian Trade Union of Health and Social Care Workers (LVSADA), along with the Latvian Doctors’ Association (LAB) and the Latvian Young Doctors’ Association (LJAA) are gearing up for further strike action and protest outside the Saeima building on November 28th, demanding the dismissal of Healthcare Minister Ilze Viņķele. This follows previous days of strike action and protests, in which about 4,000 workers took part.

The Latvian Trade Union of Education and Science Employees (LIZDA) are also planning protests and strike action in March next year if they do not receive the pay rise they demand; earlier in the year, around 2,000 teachers held protests outside the Saeima.

Lithuania

Doctors in the Lithuanian Medical Movement staged a rally outside the Ministry of Healthcare in October, after a young doctor took his own life. Following this tragic suicide, doctors and other workers from various hospitals spoke out not only about the lack of funding, but also heavy stress caused by a toxic bullying culture and the pressure on young doctors to take on unpaid overtime and extra work from their superiors. Despite needing around €120 million in funding, Lithuania’s parliament allocated only €36 million for emergency healthcare.

Last November, the Lithuanian Education Employees Trade Union held a two-day strike over pay and funding, while a solidarity demonstration held by ordinary working-class people in the capital Vilnius drew 1,000 people. In November, they held another two-day strike, on top of the 2016 strike (for the same amount of time.) Lithuanian teachers this year are also demanding that education funding matches the amount allocated to defence spending, which would mean another €600 million per year for schools. University lecturers have just been in protest over pay and funding for higher education, handing out ‘fake degrees’ to people – including to a cardboard cut-out of the minister of education, who was awarded a ‘degree in demagogy’!

Firefighters in the country, who earn less than €500 per month even doing night shifts, recently held a rally outside a government building in Vilnius, angry over the dismal pay and chronic severe underfunding of fire services. The situation is dire; many are forced to do one-person shifts and unpaid overtime, while equipment is often outdated and inadequate. In some towns, understaffing means there is only one firefighter ready on call. Against this backdrop, the Association of Firefighters Unions is threatening strike action.

In the last week, truck drivers working for haulage firms staged a protest over low pay and working conditions, which affect Ukrainian and Belarussian workers as well as Lithuanian drivers – who in countries like Norway face heavy exploitation. One of the slogans from a protest was “No to modern slavery”, with Petras Grebliauskas, the head of the Lithuanian Haulers’ Trade Union, demanding that “we want Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belarussian drivers to be paid higher wages, not to have to sleep in the truck cabins, to receive per diem allowances and not to have them cut by 50 percent.”

And farmers in Lithuania have mounted protests over tax increases in the 2020 budget, building green crosses as a sign of protest. Thousands of farmers even staged a ‘tractorcade’ in Vilnius and other cities, with tractors driving in convoys and blocking major roads. In Kaunas, around 150 tractors were parked across major motorways.

No to dictates of the EU – for a mass workers’ party!

While it may still be early days for the development of class struggle in the Baltic States, the failings of capitalism are already clear. With Mantas Zalatorius, president of Lithuania’s Association of Banks, having declared that “The population should always be ready for economic uncertainties” amid warnings of a new economic crisis developing, which is bound to hit European countries, including the Baltic States, there can be absolutely no trust in the capitalist system to provide even a basic quality of life for working-class people anywhere – whether in the EU, or outside.

Although many in the Baltic states saw the decision to join the European Union as offering an escape from the dire poverty that affected the whole of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the period of EU membership has coincided with a period of economic growth, the reality is that the capitalist EU does not act in the interests of the working class in this region. 

The European Commission was all too happy to positively endorse the 2020 budgets of Latvia and Lithuania, which will continue the low pay and infrastructure funding, while Lithuania’s political parties are united in their support for increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP in 2030. There can be no doubt that the EU does not exist to truly protect the interests of working people.

As in other countries, disillusionment with the capitalist parties and institutions, including the EU is growing.  This opposition by the Lithuanian working class is demonstrated by the results of the recent Vilmorus poll. According to this, 55.2% of people are against the defence spending increase. Vilmorus also showed that distrust of the political parties has increased from 57.2% in October to 63.5% in November, while the Seimas is currently distrusted by 60.9% of people, up from 51.7% in October. Compare those figures to the 91.6% of people with a high trust in firefighters!

The justified demands of the trade unions over pay, working conditions and funding of services can only be implemented on a sustainable basis by challenging the neo-liberal rules of the European Union and linking the struggle to the need for the full public ownership of the economy and industry and a democratic socialist planned economy. 

This does not mean replicating the bureaucratic character of the previous Stalinist regimes in the USSR, but by ensuring that workers have full democratic control and management, the economy can be planned along socialist lines, based on the needs of the many and not the profits of the few, breaking with the entire capitalist system and enabling the existence of genuinely independent states.

This means that alongside the building of strong democratic and fighting trade unions, a revolutionary mass party is needed which, standing on a socialist programme to unite the workers and farmers across the Baltic States, can lead the way in such a struggle, linking with the European working classes in the fight against capitalism.

  • Victory to the workers in the Baltic States! For fully-funded services, under full public ownership. For workers’ democratic control and management!
  • No to the EU! For a revolutionary mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. 
  • Solidarity with all European workers! For a democratic and voluntary socialist federation of European states!