A Latvian, an Estonian, and a Lithuanian walk into a bar -- Notes from the Baltic Criminology Conference

This week I had the honor of attending the 27th Annual Baltic Criminology Conference, which was an even mix of presentations on current criminal problems in the Baltics (and beyond) and US soccer (futbol) trash talking.  In attendance were lawyers, researchers, students, professors, and a hodgepodge of other criminologists from Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Slovenia, Italy, and Lithuania, of course.  The conference was a lot of fun and highlighted some interesting trends about the Baltic nations-- likely applicable to many other countries as well.  

First, although there were many countries in attendance, the conference attracted by far the most participants from the Baltic States, i.e. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and the Baltic States share a lot of similarities.  To begin with, they’re all recently independent nations after the fall of the Soviet Union.  In addition, they share very similar histories throughout the 20th century-- all undergoing many transitions in power between Russia, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  But despite these similarities, they still maintain their own unique languages, cultures, and histories.  Of course, that also adds to their similarities by making them all small countries with languages spoken only within their borders.

These similarities serve as the backdrop for many of the themes at the conference.  For starters, how do you develop a robust system of criminal law and criminal theory when this sort of discipline has only existed in your country for the past 20-odd some years?  Then, only further complicating matters, how can this discipline be grown when your language and population size place inherent limitations on it?

Twenty-five years ago, all of the Baltic States were under the iron curtain and the study of criminal law was at best not promoted and at worst actively discouraged.  The Soviet Union emphasized the importance of hard sciences but placed very little interest in the soft sciences.  The result of this fifty-year effort to devote the vast majority of resources to the pursuit of hard sciences left the study of criminal law and its effects all but abandoned.  Now, the Baltic States are looking to the experience of other nations and each other to quickly try and make up for lost time.  Unfortunately this means that many their current criminal laws and policies have not had the advantage of being tested over time.

To add to the complexities facing the Baltic States and their study of criminal law are the natural barriers of size and language.  Writing about the study of criminal law in America makes sense, because their is a large readership base that will understand the language.  Writing about the study of criminal law in Estonia is more challenging because the only people able to understand the text are Estonians, and therefore writing the book is necessarily going to limit its earning potential.  This creates a chicken vs. the egg problem in the Baltics-- less people will understand a text in Estonian so less books are purchased so less books are made and then the study itself is less popular so less books are desired, etc.  The problem these countries are now facing is how do they create respectable, accurate, and helpful studies, books, and reports on criminology in their countries knowing that outside of their countries the interest in this work is limited because of language barriers when the interest is already limited by their small population.  

These limitations create an interesting study of criminology in the Baltics that is somewhat untested and new, but they also create an amazing space and need for sharing ideas and knowledge.  I wanted to use this entry to set the scene for what’s going on in the Baltics, but stay tuned for exciting updates and some in depth examinations into more issues unique to the region in later entries!