The 'Other' Capitals
YOU might sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the Baltics are little more than Ruritanian city states. Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius dominate the news and cultural lives of their respective countries to such an extent that it can sometimes seem that the remainder of the countries are either extended suburbs or a featureless rural hinterland. Only this month Latvian President Valdis Zatlers talked about Riga as the "capital of the Baltics," as if its status as such was a universally acknowledged fact. That got us thinking - what if the Baltic capitals didn't exist? Would it mean that the countries ceased to exist too, or is there really more to them? With this question in mind, The City Paper nominates its three alternative Baltic capitals.
If any city in the Baltics can claim the right to capital status, it is Kaunas. Indeed, it has served as capital of Lithuania for considerably longer than Vilnius and one still senses a slight feeling of annoyance among locals that its pre-eminent status has been downgraded in favor of that place to the East.
Being a little further away from Poland than Vilnius, has allowed Kaunas to step into the breach to save Lithuania on several occasions. The thanks it gets, is to see power relocate to Vilnius again once the dust has settled.
When the Russian Bolsheviks occupied Vilnius in 1919, the government fled to the safe haven of Kaunas. Then Poland - which coveted south-Eastern Lithuania ever since the days of the Grand Duchy occupied 'Wilno', and Kaunas became capital of an independent, if shrunken, Lithuania between the two world wars, giving it 20 years at the top. It was Stalin who relocated the capital when he occupied Lithuania and even then Kaunas tried to come to the rescue, when another independent state was proclaimed there in 1941 before being crushed by the Soviets.
Vilnius has racked up 17 years since independence was restored in 1991, so you could say that it still has some catching up to do.
And it's not just history that argues in favor of Kaunas as capital of Lithuania. It's much more centrally located than lop-sided Vilnius, which looks like it is only a landslide away from becoming the capital of Belarus. Kaunas on the other hand is right on the Via Baltica, one of Europe's major thoroughfares and is located where the two largest Lithuanian rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris, meet.
Around 93 percent of Kaunas residents are ethnic Lithuanians, meaning that the city has a higher proportion of Lithuanians than Vilnius, and a much greater proportion of Lithuanians than Riga has Latvians or Tallinn has Estonians.
It is a place with more than its fair share of historic buildings, a central boulevard, Laisves aleja, exactly as long as Paris' Champs Elysses at 2 kilometres and it's twinned with Los Angeles, another place that is a capital in all but name.
Don't bet against Kaunas riding to the rescue of Lithuania again in the future. Vilnius is fine for the good times, but when the going gets tough, Kaunas gets going.
With a population of just 19,000 (barely enough to squeeze it into tenth place in the list of largest Latvian towns) Cesis may seem an unlikely capital for Latvia, but it proves that size isn't everything. The second city, Daugavpils, is an interesting place but along with many of the towns of Eastern Latvia, the Russian influence remains too strong to make it a credible choice. Even if you scratch away the Russification, you find Latgalian underneath with its own distinctive dialect, culture and independent spirit. Making a Latgalian city the capital of Latvia would be like making Edinburgh the capital of England.
While Riga has been the de facto capital ever since German crusaders established their first Livonian settlement there in 1201, Cesis (or Wenden as it was then known) was for centuries the real seat of their power. Their huge castle still dominates an Old Town that has remained much more intact than most Latvian settlements despite the numerous nation-defining battles which have taken place in the countryside around Cesis. Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians have all controlled Cesis at one time or another, but it remains the most Latvian of all Latvian towns with fewer than one in ten residents speaking Russian as their first language, compared to Riga's 43 percent.
Parnu is sometimes referred to as Estonia's summer capital and could be a viable candidate for capitalization thanks to its impressive roster of art galleries, and vibrant cultural scene. It also serves as gateway to the typically Estonian landscapes of the western islands. A location on the coast of the Baltic proper would in some ways be appropriate for a Baltic capital, but it also reflects the historic influence of Sweden. Still, that's better than Tallinn, the name of which derives from 'Dane's Town' making the current capital the only one in the world that pays homage to another nation!
In the end, our vote for an alternative Estonian capital has to go to Tartu, the second city. It has that essential feature of many a capital, an attractive river, the Emajogi, plus it can make a viable claim to being the nation's true cultural capital. The prestigious university is a powerhouse of the nation's technological advance, engaged in pioneering work in fields such as lasers, biotechnology and genetics.
This is the place where the Estonian national revival found its first expression, evidence of which can still be found in the city's architecture and its importance as a venue for song festivals. The strong Finnish influence exerted over Tallinn is absent, too, and the people of Tartu exhibit that almost cocky confidence that marks the Parisian from the Frenchman or the Madrileno from the Spaniard. They know they are living in the real capital of Estonia even if everyone else thinks it is Tallinn.
Around the world: other alternative capital cities
Czech Republic - Olomouc. Never heard of it? Few people have, but this remote Moravian/Bohemian (check) city boasts an ancient university and enough classical squares, fountains and edifices to make it a true capital-in-waiting.
Russia - St Petersburg. When Russia faces to the west, St Petersburg is the capital. When it becomes more introspective, Moscow is the center. Don't expect a switch any time soon.
Australia - Melbourne. Served as the capital 1901-1927 when it was usurped by purpose-built Canberra. That most people assume Sydney is the capital shows how clever that move was.
China - Shanghai. Everything that happens in China happens first in Shanghai, a city with a more open, engaging attitude than reclusive Beijing.
By Mike Collier