Illustration: Ragni Svensson

Illustration: Ragni Svensson


The concept of nation is not only, as is often assumed, related to states but to the people who feel that they belong to a community based on a common identity, wherein language and culture are often emphasized as something that knit people together. History, as well as contemporary experience, reveal the notion that state nationalism tends to oppress local languages and cultures. However, in a cultural nation interpretation, all national minorities, while being citizens of their state of domicile, are per definition not members of the majority nationality.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:4, pp 13-20
Published on on February 20, 2020

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The concept of nation is not only, as is often assumed, related to states but to the people who feel that they belong to a community based on a common identity, wherein language and culture are often emphasized  as something that  knit people together. History, as well as contemporary experience, reveal the notion that state nationalism tends to oppress local languages and cultures. However, in a cultural nation interpretation, all national minorities, while being citizens of their state of domicile, are per definition not members of the majority nationality. By claiming membership of the minority, individuals are given exclusive rights such as protection of customs, language and religion while, of course, being free to choose either assimilation or a combination of both. One dilemma of cultural nationalism is the relationship between autochthonous minorities and immigrant groups. Among individuals with a possible otherness in relation to the nationalized state is their choice of identity: otherness, total assimilation into the majority, or a twin identity. Nationality is not a digital attribute – identities can be split and shared in multiple ways – a conclusion which is argued for in this article.

Key words: Nation, states, minority, nationality.


Cultural nationalism and state nationalism

When Jerzy Einhorn (1925—2000), later to become famous as a medical professor and politician, arrives in Sweden in 1946, he is interrogated by immigration police and asked for his nationality. He answers “Jewish”. “There is no such nationality” says the policeman. Einhorn comments: “He doesn’t understand that in all my years I have not been allowed to be Polish and that he is the one who is right.” But how could Einhorn believe his nationality is Jewish? The Swedish National Encyclopedia states: Basically, the concept of “nation” does not relate to states but to the concept of “people”, i.e. individuals knit together by a common identity. In the article, history professor Rune Johansson, expert on nationalism, explains the two concepts of cultural nationalism and state nationalism, in which the first and semantically more appropriate concept (from the Latin natio, birth, family, people) has been used in the German-speaking world and Eastern Europe, while state nationalism has been taken for granted in France and the United States.


This conceptual bewilderment is historically grounded. Until 1871 there was no German state but a number of smaller territories “united” by a common sense of nationality — a German nationality. In the area, as well as in the emerging Italy and in a historical Poland divided and subordinated by three colonizing powers (Habsburg Austria, Tsarist Russia and Prussia), nationalism was directed towards  forming a territorial state built on the idea of a common nation. In the French case, the 1789 revolution centralized an earlier conglomerate of languages and cultures (Provençal, Breton, Flemish, etc.) into one homogeneous unit (égalité, one of the three revolutionary keywords), in reality a forced assimilation into a unitary French culture and language. Based on the same logic as the metric system being equal for everyone, ethnicity would also be homogenized. France continues to deny the existence of national minorities by stating “we are all French”.  Bretons and Basques, peoples without a state, were seen as mere curiosities and their languages were despised and counteracted as “patois” — local dialects. Groups with a potential ethnic homeland, such as Corsicans, Catalans, Flemish and German speakers in Alsace-Lorraine, were warned not to listen to irredenta messages from neighboring “kin-nation” countries. As a positive consequence of its interpretation of nationalism, France has refrained from any irredentism of its own, e.g. against French-speaking Switzerland, Walloon Belgium or the Vallée d’Aoste in Italy. Another consequence of state nationalism has been a readiness —  at least in principle — to accept all immigrants who are willing to become French.


In North America a number of British provinces formed an independent federation in which the units were called states, and the entire territory, the USA, was called the Nation. American English semantic hegemony has unfortunately led to an increasing tendency in other languages, even Swedish and German, to use the concept of the nationstate even for multi-national territorial states, e.g. Belgium and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Consequently, the concept of national minority has been blurred. In the cultural concept of the nation, a national minority comprises a group of autochthonous people within a state who do not consider themselves to belong to the state-forming nation but are either a member of another state-forming nationality (e.g. Hungarians in Romania) or constitute a stateless nation, e.g. the Kurds and the Sámi. To states that are based on immigrant assimilation, the protection of national minorities has often been misunderstood. In the first decades of the United Nations (sic!), the United States (sic!) helped national minorities assimilate into the majority population. Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination against Minorities, never understood that most European minorities sought protection from the forced cultural and linguistic assimilation by the “nationalizing states” rather than losing their identity.


In the current Swedish debate, totally dominated by the state nation concept, a professor of international law has been cited as referring to the fact that the United Nations is obviously a grouping of states, thus equal to nations. However, its predecessor, the League of Nations, was built on Woodrow Wilson’s dream of every people’s right to form a state of their own, a nation state. The conglomerate states of Russia and Austria-Hungary and Germany (with its Polish, Danish and French-minded minorities) were divided or truncated according to ethnic principles, often after plebiscites, despite this ethnic mix resulting in large national minorities in the new states which, in turn, were often oppressed by the new ruling majority. At the same time the victorious western powers were able to continue their ethnic assimilation, creating a national unity by means of oppression and coercion. In Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden followed the French model of national homogenization through a policy of assimilation. In a plebiscite in 1920, Denmark gained an “ethnic irredenta” of Northern Schleswig, while the territorially detached Atlantic areas of Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland, with their respective linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, eventually gained their independence (Iceland) and autonomy. Finland was relatively successful in creating a nation comprising two linguistic communities, accepting a League of Nations decision on limited autonomy for the Åland Islands whose population had opted for Sweden in an unofficial referendum.

State nationalism and its cultural counterpart

State nationalism has been utilized by other European nationalizing states by even worse means, particularly when it comes to the eradication of local languages and cultures. The Hungary of today is deploring the loss of ethnic irredenta after 1918, but little mention is made of the radical Magyarization of non-ethnic Hungarians up to World War I. In Turkey, until recently the existence of a considerable Kurdish minority has been denied and it is still forbidden to describe the Kurds as a nation. Like Turkey, Greece only accepts the existence of minorities that have been legally defined in treaties, (the Muslim, mainly Turkish minority in Western Thrace) but denies the rights of its autochthonous Albanian and Slavo-Macedonian groups, which have been heavily reduced by assimilation or emigration. Spain officially denies the existence of a Catalan or Catalonian nation but recognizes the right to autonomy of its “nationalities and regions”.


State nationalism is relatively easy to define and analyze as it is performed by a legal entity, the independent state. Cultural nationalism is more esoteric, and it is related to a sense of identity that is also changeable, multidimensional and spurred by popular or even populist movements. In what is probably his best and most comprehensive book, Staten som lifsform [The State as a Form of Life] (1916) the  controversial, and partly reactionary Swedish activist, political scientist Rudolf Kjellén (1864—1922) engages in a considerable and initiated and well-balanced discussion of the concept of nation (in the cultural sense of the word) which he puts against the state with its legal organization and defined territory. The nation is a community of will, it is undefined, volatile, it changes with the times and “the time spirit”. In discussing the different factors that influence national identification, he is surprisingly clear in denouncing race and “blood” as determining factors, but even language and religion may not be decisive in the identification process. In his view, racial mixture is a typical feature of great western nations (= peoples). Both in Kjellén’s time and up to 1945, the  concept of race was used in Swedish academic geography and anthropology, e.g. in differentiating three races in Sweden: the Swedes, the Finns and the “Lapps” (i.e. the Sámi), although there are no signs of any ranking or discrimination according to these classifications. However, anthropologists in those days often referred to exotic peoples as “primitive”. A Swedish official discussing the Sámi in an article published in 1942 underlines that the “Lapps” are just as intelligent as any other people, indirectly implying the existence of other opinions.

Kjellén’s depreciation of the importance of religion in the nation-forming process was probably influenced by his appreciation of Wilhelminian Germany, a state comprising two major Christian denominations and (in 1916) a patriotic, successful and assimilated Jewish minority. As for language, the Polish case (see below) may indicate the opposite of the German case, although developments after World War I show that a common language, either defining the territorial state or used by the state to assimilate linguistic minorities, is the most effective means of nationalizing a territory. However, the case of the Central South Slavic language — at one time called Serbo-Croatian — splitting into four officially different languages, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian (Bosnyak)  and Montenegrin, shows the power that colonizers of different religions has on subjected peoples. “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, a sentence attributed to Joshua Fishman, shows the importance of having strong support for a rigid definition of what is “correct” — (and what is not correct!) in speaking and writing a recognized language. And language is one of the most ardent shibboleths, actually the original shibboleth, in defining the boundary of an ethnic group on its way to forming a specific cultural nationality.


The relationship between state nationalism and the cultural concept of nation is obviously complex. One of the best books on nationalism had already been written in the 1950’s by the multi-ethnic political scientist Karl Wolfgang Deutsch. In his Nationalism and Social Communication, he analyses how the state both directly and indirectly, even via infrastructural devices, aims to make the population of the state territory form a nation, a people full of solidarity towards “their” country. Later, Benedict Anderson characterizes the nation as an imagined community. Rogers Brubaker, studying states with ethnic minorities, has described their efforts to homogenize as “nationalizing”. In spite of these and other contributions to the understanding of the relation between nation and state, the interpretation of the concept of nation as a formal territorial organization appears to have won the “game of formulation hegemony”.

Defining minorities – inclusive or exclusive

The recent debate in Sweden has been totally dominated by a state nation view, particularly with regards to the strong condemnation of a statement by members of the populist Sverigedemokraterna  (Sweden Democrats) party that the Sámi (and perhaps in consequence, Jews and Roma) are not Swedish. However, in a cultural nation interpretation, all national minorities, while being citizens of their state of domicile are, by definition, not members of the majority nationality. By claiming membership of a minority, individuals are given exclusive rights, including protection of customs, language and religion while, of course, being free to choose either assimilation or a combination of both. Sweden ratified the European conventions on language and minorities with some hesitation. Its choice of defined minorities and languages may be debatable, but in the case of the Sámi, the Roma and the autochthonous Finnish-speaking population of the north, it marks the end of a century of forced assimilation that started around 1880. When in the 1930s a number of Social Democratic government ministers attempted to reintroduce language rights for Finnish speakers they were met with heavy resistance from local leaders. The fear of being regarded Finnish (and even becoming the victim of Finnish irredentism) led to a denial of the value of the language and its culture and eventually to the creation of a  “new language”,  Meänkieli, based on the local dialects of Finnish that were not supported by the teaching of standard Finnish. The subsequent decline of Finnish has led to a loss of northern multiculturalism and has hampered cross-border contacts and communication. During the time of Swedification, the policy towards the Sámi was partly different: Sámi reindeer nomad herders  were encouraged to keep their identity but were patronized and linguistically Swedified. Until recently, other Sámi were supposed to assimilate, resulting in internal conflicts in the Sámi community, as well as in the considerable loss of a language that was already weakened by strong local differences, as well as by the division of the Sámi nation into four territorial states in Northern Europe.


Among individuals with a possible otherness in relation to the nationalized state is the choice of identity: otherness, total assimilation into the majority, or a twin identity. State policies of assimilation have created changes of identity, defiance and strengthening of the minority, or even a “middle way”, the creation of new identities in denial of both the majority and the “kin-state” identity, although often based on the non-standardized version of the related neighboring majority language, a “wild dialect” or dachlose Mundart (as suggested by the German sociolinguist Heinz Kloss). Meänkieli, the rise of a Silesian identity, Windisch in Austria, Corsican and Alsatian in France are examples of “middle way-inventions”, often facing the extinction of a language within a generation or two. For immigrants the choice is between isolation in the diaspora group, intentional assimilation, or a combination of both, often specialized into different walks of life. Different backgrounds depending on ethnic and state territorial origin have resulted in different choices. The Eastern European Jews who arrived in Western Europe could easily drop their colloquial Yiddish in favor of the majority language because they could keep their liturgy in Hebrew. Estonian refugees in Sweden in the 1940s successfully chose societal assimilation while cultivating their native language, preparing for a possible return to Estonia. Individual and group experience, often with generational consequences, therefore plays an important role.

Thus, against the singularity of state nationalism is the dilemma of cultural nationalism: Who has the right to claim to be Swedish, Sámi or Kurd?  Is the nation inclusive or is it contained? In the aftermath of the plebiscites following the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, in order to territorially define the new or recreated “nation states”, it was found that a substantial number of Polish-speaking Protestants, the Masurians, had voted for Germany, since they saw Polishness as a part of Catholicism. This also affected the Polish Jews (cf. Einhorn!) who had no territorial option (except for the (then) utopian Zionists). In Silesia, with an ethnically divided population, a number of districts voted for a restored Polish republic. A German geography professor argued in a book that the population was wrong in its choice: German culture was superior! In other words, welcome to a higher culture. A decade later German nationalism became exclusive: Poles allegedly belonged to an inferior race, not to be mixed with the German race. Jews and Roma would fare even worse, as they were doomed to annihilation.

History partly repeated itself: After Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945, many inhabitants of Germany’s South Schleswig chose, or returned to, Danish-mindedness, not only in response to the undamaged infrastructure and relatively unharmed democracy in Denmark, but also in protest at the influx of German refugees, banished from territories claimed and ethnically cleansed by the Soviet Union and Poland. Among the re-born Danes there were even signs of racism against the eastern Germans who were allegedly of “Slavic blood”. This reference to a racial difference soon waned, but even before the Nazi appropriation of the concept of race and up to the end of World War II, the interpretation of race as a quality that differentiated between different peoples was commonplace. In Swedish scientific journals, Swedish Jews were usually regarded as an integrated part of the Swedish population, while Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe trying to escape to Sweden from Nazism were met with resistance from the legal system and, with some remarkable exceptions, from the press, usually because it was alleged that they had taken jobs from the native population. With the exception of the minuscule pro-Nazi press, direct anti-Semitism was obsolete or hidden behind references to Swedish neutrality.

Native versus immigrant minorities

One dilemma of cultural nationalism is the relation between autochthonous minorities and immigrant groups. If a territorial state recognizes that it has an obligation to its domestic minorities to protect their distinctiveness from the majority population, what is its obligation to people coming from abroad — to help them assimilate or to help them retain their distinctiveness? Russian authorities have been vociferous in their criticism of Estonia and Latvia in their “refusal to grant minority rights” to native Russians.

However, with the exception of a small number of descendants of Russians since the Tsarist era, who were granted minority rights in the 1920s, the Russians and Russian speakers of these countries are descendants of immigrants from a time of forced annexation by the Soviet Union. Thus, most members of this group cannot refer to a status of national minority, only to individual human rights. The situation of the Roma population in Sweden and other West European countries is partly similar. While Sweden (and Finland under Swedish rule) has long had an autochthonous Roma population, since the 1970s this has been supplemented by immigrants from the Balkans, strengthening the position of the group but also adding to the internal differences within it.


Returning to Jerzy Einhorn: After a number of years he spoke Swedish, was granted  citizenship and was fully integrated into Swedish society. He became a Swede but retained his Jewish identity and his Polish experience to the extent he chose himself.

Citizenship is a legal document but is also a “passport” of access to the rights and obligations of the territorial state, something that usually requires an acceptable command of the state language. Nationality is something else: Majorities and minorities have a right to choose their national identity according to their origin and experience. Nationality is not a digital attribute — identities can be split and shared in many ways. ≈



  1. Jerzy Einhorn, Utvald att leva: minnen [Chosen to Live: memoirs], (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1996) .
  2. Nationalencyklopedin, [National Encyclopedia] Tome 14 (Höganäs: Bra Böcker, 1994): “Nation”, 38.
  3. Sociologist Mikael Hjerm, in “National Sentiments in Eastern and Western Europe” Nationalities Papers, Vol. 31, No. 4, December 2003, 413—429 uses a slightly different dichotomy; civic and cultural nationalism, posing the hypothesis that the former is more typical of Western Europe, encompassing a democratic build-up of the nation state, the other being a product of romanticism and based on an ethnic definition of nationalism. In his study, based on factor analysis of the International Social Survey Programme of 1996, the East–West divide is partly refuted. Despite a valuable discussion, the results are based on a meagre sample without taking into account, for example, the existence of national minorities or ethnic irredenta. Also, the countries selected do not exactly match the factual difference in the definition of “nation”, in which Austria (included) and Germany (not included) historically belong to the group of cultural definition of nationality. While the civic-cultural dichotomy is of interest, it appears to obfuscate the role of the state in successfully “nationalizing” its population and the strength in populist efforts to define and contain “the nation”.
  4. The concept of the territorial state and its relation to internal differences and stateless nations is elaborated in Bjarne Lindström, “State integration vs. Regional Exceptionalism”, Baltic Worlds 2019 Vol XII: 1, 57—69.
  5. Inis I. Claude, National Minorities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955).
  6. Some of the implications of the Paris Peace Conference and the foundation of the League of Nations on the territorial states and the protection of minorities are discussed in Karen Culcasi, Emily Skop, Cynthia Gorman: “Contemporary Refugee Border Dynamics and the Legacies of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference”, Geographical Review, June 13, 2019 [], accessed 20190820.
  7. In a chronicle in the Swedish Geographical Annual (Svensk Geografisk Årsbok), written in November 1939, geographer Sven Björnsson writes (my translation]: ‘1938 is the birth year of Greater Germany. In 1939 the extension of power increased to the greatest extent to areas that had a predominantly foreign ethnic element and Germany has thus ceased to be a nation state’ [Sw. nationalstat]. Thomas Lundén: Swedish geography and the time spirit 1933—45: Resistance, subordination or tergiversation? Unpublished paper, 2019. Thus, Björnsson clearly adheres to the concept of a cultural definition of the nation.
  8. Decision of the Council of The League of Nations on the Åland Islands including Sweden’s Protest. Minutes of the Fourteenth Meeting of The Council, June 24, 1921, Original English Version. League of Nations Official Journal 697, September 1921. A classical account of the League’s treatment of the Åland question is James Barros The Aland Islands Question: Its settlement by the League of Nations, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); a geopolitical analysis is Göran Rystad’s “The Åland Islands question and the balance of power in the Baltic during the First World War” in G. Rystad et al. (eds.), In quest of trade and security: The Baltic in Power Politics 1500—1990, 51—105 (Stockholm: Probus, 1995). For a contemporary evaluation of the legal status of Åland, see e.g. The Second Åland question. Autonomy or independence (eds. Harry Jansson and Johannes Salminen. Mariehamn: Julius Sundblom Memorial foundation, 2002.
  9. In Spain, the official use of the term nation for Catalonia has been prohibited by the Spanish Supreme Court: “With respect to the status of Catalonia, the Constitutional Court rendered on 28 June 2010 what for many is the ultimate source of all the current political turmoil: the judgment on the constitutionality of the so-called ‘Estatuto de Cataluña’ (hereinafter ‘the 2006 Statute’), a piece of legislation regulating the exercise of regional powers whose adoption required consent by the legislative chambers in Madrid. The term “national” used in Article 8 to qualify the symbols of Catalonia was considered equivalent to the term “nationality” appearing in Article 2 of the Constitution. Article 2 refers to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards” while it protects “the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all”. Asier Garrido Muñoz: Catalan independence in the Spanish Constitution and Courts Oxford Constitutional Law. Available at: 2019-08-12].
  10. Rudolf Kjellén, Staten som lifsform (Stockholm: Geber, 1916), 83—123. In a footnote he refers to the assertion that the Eastern Jews (called “Orientals”) merely because of their racial homogeneity make a nation devoid of a state. Kjellén’s footnote 2, 114. While appreciating a historical ethno-cultural mix he was negative about immigration and emigration and skeptical about Pan-Slavism, Pan-Latinism and even Pan-Germanism. See also Rudolf Kjellén. Geopolitiken och konservatismen [Geopolitics and conservatism], eds B. Edström, R. Björk and T. Lundén (Stockholm: Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2014).
  11. Thomas Lundén: Swedish geography and the time spirit 1933—45: Resistance, subordination or tergiversation? Unpublished paper, 2019.                                          
  12. Bjarne Lindström, op. cit., 59.
  13. The statement was made in a Yiddish journal in 1945 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich who received it from one of his students, probably Joshua Fishman, although the origin of the saying is disputed.
  14. Frederik Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. The social organization of cultural difference (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969). In the Bible, Book of Judges, Chapter 12, the word shibboleth was used to distinguish speakers of one tribe from another according to their way of enunciating the sound ‘sh’. A common language is still regarded as the most effective way of communicating “nation-ness”, cf. Lindström, op.cit. note 8.
  15. Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication (Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press, 1953).
  16. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Norfolk; Verso, 1983).
  17. Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. Nationalism and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  18. See e.g. Thomas Lundén, “The creation of a dying language”, Folia Scandinavica Posnaniensia 12 (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2011), 143—154.
  19. Heinz Kloss, Die Entwicklung neuer germanischer Kultursprachen von 1800 bis 1950, (München: Pohl & Co) 20—21.
  20. Andreas Kossert, Preußen, Deutsche order Polen? Die Masuren im Spannungsfeld des ethnischen Nationalismus 1870—1956 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2002).
  21. Wilhelm Volz, Das Deutschtum in den Kreisen Rybnik und Pless. In fünf Karten dargestellt. Breslau 1921. See also Thomas Lundén, On the Boundary. About humans at the end of territory. (Huddinge: Södertörns högskola, 2004), 50—51.
  22. Martin Klatt, Flygtningene og Sydslesvigs danske bevægelse 1945—1955. (Flensborg: Studieafdelingen ved Dansk Centralbibliotek for Sydslesvig, 2001).
  23. For a discussion of the definition of national and linguistic minorities in European and international conventions, see e.g. Thomas Lundén “Language, Ethnicity and Border Changes in 20th Century Europe”, in Border changes in 20th Century Europe. Tartu Studies in Contemporary History Vol.1, E. Medijainen and O. Mertelsmann (Berlin: LIT, 2010).
  24. David J. Smith, “Estonia: A Model for Inter-War Europe?” Ethnopolitics, 15, 2016, 89—104, mainly refers to the German and Jewish minorities. The substantial Russian minority was politically and spatially dispersed and never used its minority rights to any considerable extent. See lecture by Olev Liivik at the conference “Towards a New Baltic Sea Region?” in Tallinn in 2018, referred to by Thomas Lundén and Anne Hedén, Baltic Worlds 2019 XII: 1, 51.
  25. See e.g. Kalev Katus, Allan Puur and Luule Sakkeus, “Immigrant Population in Estonia”, in Demographic Characteristics of Immigrant Populations, Haug, P. Compton, Y. Courbage (eds) (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2000), 135—192.
  26. See e.g. Yaron Matras’ Romani: A linguistic introduction, chapter 10, “Romani Sociolinguistics”, 238—250, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002). For a research project related to Roma identity, see The Role of Language in the Transnational Formation of Romani Identity (RomIdent) at Manchester University. Available at: Accessed August 12, 2019. The Council of Europe publishes reports on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Slovenia’s report includes several actions that support Roma, even including groups originating in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. European charter for regional or minority languages Strasbourg, April 8, 2018 MIN-LANG (2019) PR 1 Slovenia: Fifth periodical report presented to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in accordance with Article 15 of the Charter. Available at: Sweden: While Sweden officially recognizes řomani čhib, the report also includes efforts to document different variants of Romani, also including those spoken by more recent immigrants. Seventh periodical report presented to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in accordance with Article 15 of the Charter. Available at: Both accessed August 12, 2019.
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