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These Embassies are Celebrating 100 Years in 2018

By Austin Mistretta 

So far, the new year has been an eventful one in Washington. There has been no shortage of colorful headlines coming out of Congress and the White House, both of which remain embroiled in controversy and partisan infighting on issues ranging from immigration to trade to the Russia investigations.

But on Embassy Row, there is still plenty to celebrate in 2018 despite the uncertainty of President Trump’s foreign policy and his “America First” agenda. In particular, the countries that gained their independence in 1918 after the collapse the German and Russian empires at the end of World War I — among them, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Czechoslovakia and Hungary — are commemorating the centennial of their independence.


The flag of the Czech Republic flies over its capital city of Prague. (Photo: Pixabay)

While that sovereignty was cut short by World War II and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the United States never recognized that occupation, a point of pride for the Baltics. Today, however, America’s relations with Europe have been strained under Trump, who has openly questioned the relevance of NATO and repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin despite his provocations in the region.

Yet during the centennial celebrations, former Soviet republics focused on the positive, praising America’s support for them during the Cold War and the progress they’ve made since regaining their independence after the fall of communism.

Here’s a snapshot of how some embassies are commemorating their 100-year anniversaries:

Czech Republic
In February, the Embassy of the Czech Republic kicked off a year of celebrations throughout the U.S. honoring the 100th anniversary of Czech independence. The festivities began on Feb. 7 with the opening of the exhibit “Phenomenon Masaryk,” celebrating Tomá? Garrigue Masaryk, the founding father and first president of Czechoslovakia.


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, second from right, meets with Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rink?vics, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius and Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser at the State Department on March 5, 2018. (Photo: State Department)

The Czech people have been independent since Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed following World War I. Since then, the Czechs have maintained their sovereignty through a number of turbulent periods, including a partial annexation by Nazi Germany and later a stint in the Soviet bloc. The Czech Republic itself is relatively young — it was born in 1993, when Czechoslovakia dissolved and separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“The Czechs mark a centennial struggle for freedom as well as the resolute establishment of a thriving democracy,” the Czech embassy announced. “This year, the Czech Republic rejoices in its prosperity.”

The embassy hosted a slew of other commemorative events both around D.C. and in various U.S. cities: including a reading of essays by the 20th-century Czech anti-communist writer Václav Benda, held at Florida International University; a lecture titled “The Prague Coup d’État in 1948: Heretical Thoughts” at the embassy by Boston University professor Igor Lukes; and a local screening of the film “Milada,” about the only woman executed on the basis of fabricated charges in a political show trial by the Czech communist regime.

“This is truly a very special year for all Czechs back home in the heart of Europe as well as around the world. It represents a great opportunity not only to pop the cork but also to explore where we are heading, while reflecting on the twists and turns of the past 100 years,” said Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček. “Here, in the United States, it is a special occasion for the hundreds of thousands of those who feel their heart beat in Czech rhythm and for the crucial role the United States has played in the story of Czech independence in the past, the present and will surely play in the days to come.”


Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) speaks at an event honoring Lithuania’s centennial. Photo: Austin Mistretta (Photo: Austin Mistretta)

Baltics
On Feb. 24, 2018, Estonia marked its 100th anniversary of independence from the Russian Empire. Yet for more than half that time, this tiny Baltic nation about twice the size of New Jersey wasn’t independent at all. Occupied by Soviet troops in 1940, it was captured by Nazi Germany a year later, retaken by the U.S.S.R. in 1944 — and promptly turned, against its will, into a Soviet republic ruled by Moscow. It was only in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, that Estonia regained its independence and began the long path to prosperity.

Since then, despite being one of the smallest nations in the European Union, Estonia has become one of its most successful. A member of both the EU and NATO since 2004 (and the eurozone since 2011), its 1.3 million people today enjoy one of Europe’s fast-growing economies, almost zero public debt and near-universal internet access (Estonia is the birthplace of Skype).

To celebrate its achievements, the embassy is hosting an array of events, including the National Gallery of Art exhibition “Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe” (see story in the March 2018 issue of The Washington Diplomat). Other events include a show on “Estonian History in Pictures at the George Washington University; “100 Years of Estonian Music” at the Kennedy Center; and a reception at the embassy that featured a flash mob performance and a celebration of the close ties between Estonia and the state of Maryland. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also declared Feb. 24, 2018, Estonia Day.

Like Estonia, Lithuania endured a tumultuous journey over the last century. On Feb. 16, 1918, the democratic Council of Lithuania’s 20 members signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania, which was scrawled by hand on a piece of plain white paper. Since then, Lithuania has seen a number of governments come and go, and found itself facing invasions by everyone from the Bolsheviks to the Polish army to the postwar U.S.S.R. Through it all, though, the people of Lithuania have maintained their identity and their pride — something they are taking the opportunity to celebrate now.


As part of Estonia’s centennial, The National Gallery of Art is highlighting the works of Estonian Renaissance painter Michel Sittow, including,“Mary Rose Tudor (1496–1533), Sister of Henry VIII of England.” (Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Gemäldegalerie / KHM - Museumsverband)

The last 100 years have been fraught for Lithuania, as they have for many of its regional peers. Even as the weight of Nazism lifted following World War II, the Baltic states found themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain and spent decades occupied by Soviet forces. Lithuania only became free again when the Warsaw Pact began to disintegrate and it was able to re-establish independence in 1990.

Since then, Lithuania and the other Baltic countries have become key NATO allies of the United States. As Russia becomes an increasingly potent geostrategic threat — Russian military presence near the Baltics continues to grow ominously — NATO advocates have doubled down on America’s commitment to Article 5 of the alliance’s charter, which provides for the mutual defense of all participant states.

“Most of us who are close to Lithuania today know that Russia and Putin have designs on the Baltics, and this much I’ll say: NATO and the United States will be standing together with Lithuania and the Baltic nations to protect their independence and their freedom,” promised Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) at a March 6 centenary event hosted by the Lithuanian Embassy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

On March 5, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with representatives of the Baltic countries concerning the Russia problem. Those talks will continue at the upcoming Baltic summit, which is to be held in Washington next month.

“In order to ensure long-term security, the three Baltic states need to work hand in hand with the United States in areas such as defense, counterterrorism, hybrid and other threats,” said Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevi?ius after the March meeting.

Tillerson and the three Baltic ministers “discussed strategies to address the threat Russia poses to European security and Russia's lack of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors,” a State Department statement said.

It added that a meeting between Trump and the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would “set the stage for another century of strong ties between the United States and these three important allies.”

 


Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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