Mayors in the Baltic countries have joined forces to help end the war in Ukraine, support Ukrainians fleeing the fighting and integrate those displaced into their local economies.
Mārtiņš Staķis, the mayor of Riga, Latvia, said cities in the region are “united as never before”, remembering similar unity 30 years ago when the Baltic states were fighting for their independence from the Soviet Union.
“I have never had so many meetings and phone calls with the different cities,” he added. “We now have to use this unity … to stop this murderer of nations [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and do everything we can to help Ukraine.”
The capital cities of the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have already accepted thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine since Russia invaded the country on February 24. Efforts are being made to integrate them into their cities, including providing housing and accommodating hundreds of children in schools.
Meanwhile, Poland has taken more than two million Ukrainian refugees — by far the largest number of any country, according to UN estimates.
Mayors from the Baltic countries told fDi at Mipim, a real estate conference held in Cannes, France on March 15–18, about their shared responsibility to help Ukraine after Mr Putin’s unprovoked military aggression.
Collaboration over competition
Baltic cities have sent a range of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including food, hygiene products and medical supplies, alongside logistical and informational support.
“Even before [the invasion, interactions in the Baltics] were about both competition and collaboration. But now there is more collaboration because with the refugees we have to learn from each other very quickly,” said Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania. He sat down with fDi shortly after a Mipim panel discussion about regional unity that included Mr Stakis and fellow regional city leaders from Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland.
“We are focused most on how to help Ukraine to win the war: that is the most essential thing,” he added. “I was in Kiev a day before the invasion started. It’s very clear that it is our obligation to speak very openly about it, because we understand a bit better what Russia is and what the mentality behind it is [than other countries].”
Mihhail Kõlvart, the mayor of Tallinn, visited the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on March 18, where he met with the city government to learn about the situation for refugees in Ukraine.
“At the moment, Ukrainian city leaders need humanitarian aid to cope with the influx of refugees, but they also need moral support from their European counterparts,” he said in a statement. Tallinn has agreed with the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, to further develop existing cultural and business relations between the two cities after the war.
“Leaving your home in a war situation is a huge tragedy for people, but it is clear that the local municipal authorities are doing everything to receive people, to provide temporary accommodation and the necessary first aid,” added Mr Kõlvart.
Mr Šimašius said that Vilnius has direct communication with its sister cities of Lviv and Kyiv. He says, within two weeks of the invasion, Lithuanian businesses and citizens raised €25m for non-lethal military support to Ukraine. Vilnius city council has donated a further €500,000 to Kiev.
The mayor of Vilnius is one of several from eastern European cities calling on the UN to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine in response to Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of the country.
Mr Staķis told fDi at Mipim that Riga will likely sign the letter to the UN, but believes cities should follow the official status of their governments.
The Latvian government has said it is against Nato imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“[As cities] we shouldn’t create our own foreign policy, but we should make a noise,” added Mr Staķis, noting previous efforts against Belarus’ actions. In May 2021, Riga made headlines by flying the Belarusian flag of freedom after Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko grounded a Ryanair flight carrying an outspoken opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, travelling from Athens.
As another sign of solidarity to Ukraine, Riga’s city council voted on March 10 to change the address of the Russian embassy to 2, Street of Ukrainian Independence. Vilnius has changed the name of the street with its own Russian embassy to ‘Ukrainian heroes’.
A safe place
Even as they focus on political campaigning, humanitarian aid and support for Ukrainian refugees, the Baltic states face a difficult investment attraction environment.
The Ukraine war has already weighed on sentiment in the real estate sector, with some international investors showing caution about investing in countries bordering Russia.
“We have to work hard to persuade [investors that] this is a safe place,” says Mr Staķis. “There will definitely be an iron curtain, but we will be on the right side of [it]. Companies will relocate their businesses [from Russia].”
German broadcaster Deutsche Welle announced on March 8 that it will relocate its Moscow office to Riga after the withdrawal of its staff accreditation by the Russian government.
Mr Šimašius says that Vilnius is preparing for further growth in its population with the influx of refugees from Ukraine’s war and Russians who want to leave Russia.
“We see a big interest in Russian service companies who employ smart and creative people who hate Kremlin politics and want to escape Russia,” said Mr Šimašius.
“Of course, we skipped all economic relations with Russia and Belarus. But those people escaping the regime will be welcomed in Vilnius. In some cases, there may be competition between cities, where the most creative people will set up after this war.”
The price of freedom
Mr Staķis says that the disruption of supply chains with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine will “hit us hard”, particularly given a planned €120m programme to reconstruct four of Riga’s bridges, which will require large amounts of steel.
The price of European domestic steel sections jumped to €1250 per tonne in the first half of March, its highest on record since 1998, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights’ Platts index.
“All of this steel [for our bridge projects] was from Russia, Belarus as well as Ukraine. We just don’t have the product anymore. We have to find new supplies and increase the expenses. We actually have to redo all the plans now,” he said.
Increasing prices of food due to the Ukraine war are also putting Riga’s school system under pressure, said Mr Stakis.
“All of us will pay a very high price. But it is nothing compared to the price that Ukraine will pay for that. They will pay with their own lives [and] destroyed families … We will maybe stop some big projects because of the price of fuel [and materials],” he said.
“But again, this price is not so high. This is the price of freedom.”