By Paul Goble
Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been de facto independent for more than three decades, the three are still integrated into two Russian-dominated projects that are a hangover from the period of Soviet occupation: integration into a broader energy network (BRELL) and a railway gauge at odds with European standards.
The Baltic countries are committed to escaping both, and Putin’s war in Ukraine and Finland’s accession to NATO have added new impetus to doing so, with the three declaring they will leave BRELL by 2025 and increase efforts to complete Rail Baltica, which will include changing the gauge of rail there from Russian to European ones by the end of the decade.
(In Russian and still Baltic railways, tracks are separated by 1520 mm, while in Europe and most of the rest of the world, they are separated by only 1435 mm, an arrangement that means that cargo must be shifted at the borders between them, slowing transportation speeds and adding to costs.)
The costs of bringing Baltic railways into conformity with the European standard are enormous, and progress in doing so has been further slowed by environmental objections, disagreements on routes, and a series of corruption scandals that, along with the economic consequences of separating from the Russian network, have slowed progress.
Up to now, Estonia and Latvia have not laid a single kilometer of European standard rail, while Lithuania has put down 128 kilometers. But the war in Ukraine and Finland’s NATO membership mean that there is greater pressure to move forward on this project and more support in Europe for it (holod.media/2023/11/29/prizrak-kommunizma/).