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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.
The term state is here used as a synonym of sovereign country, as distinct from non-sovereign states of the kind to be found in federations and confederations. Before the fall of the Soviet Union the term Baltic state was by some English speakers intended to hint at the three Baltic countries were under Soviet occupation.
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:
Sometimes the Baltic countries are also designated as Northeastern Europe.
The term Baltic states differs from the term Baltic sea countries which refers to all the countries bordering the Baltic.
Despite the common name, it's often indicated that the three Baltic countries have little else in common than their location and, to lesser degree, a shared history. Estonia aspires in direction of their Finnic brethren and the Nordic countries while Lithuania focuses on its connection to Poland and Central Europe.
In the Cold War context the Baltic countries were considered to be a part of Eastern Europe, but culturally and historically it is more appropriate to view all of the Baltic Sea countries as part of Northern Europe, where the historical impact of the Hanseatic League, the Russian Empire, and the German Empire have been of crucial importance. For Latvia and Estonia, present-day and historical connections to Finland, Sweden, and Denmark have also been important.
Some political scientists consider Lithuania as part of Central Europe, because it shares few common influences with the other two Baltic countries.
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 the aftermath of World War I. They declared independence in 1918, fought independence wars against German freikorps and Bolshevist Russia and were recognized as independent countries in 1920.
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 all of Balticum. 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 republics were established as the Estonian SSR, the Latvian SSR and the Lithuanian SSR, being constituent parts of the Soviet Union.
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) 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. Integration with the Western World and with Western Europe is commenced.
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 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 (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 in Estonia and Latvia.
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