- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

NARVA, Estonia — With the former Soviet republic of Estonia due to be the European Union’s new eastern border on May 1 residents along its 286-mile border with Russia are looking to their future with a mixture of optimism and trepidation.

In the northeastern city of Narva — Estonia’s third-largest city, with a population of 70,000 — concern is high about the changes that EU membership could bring if the country of 1.4 million people vote in favor of EU membership in a Sept. 14 referendum.

Because of its location on the Russian border and the fact that 95 percent of its residents speak Russian, Narva is uniquely tied to Russia, particularly to Ivangorod, the city directly across the river.

Unlike in the Baltic state of Lithuania, which imposed visas on Russia on Tuesday for the first time, visa requirements have been in force for some time between Estonia and Russia.

So Narva and Ivangorod, essentially one city until the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, are separated by the bridge that is a border checkpoint. And by visas.

Each day roughly 2,500 Narva residents cross to Ivangorod on foot, most of then visiting relatives, making trips to their summer cottages, or shopping for such items as food and bicycle tires, which are about half the price on the Russian side of the border.

A plan implemented last July made obtaining multiple-entry visas to Russia relatively easy and inexpensive for as many as 4,000 residents with strong ties to the other side of the border because of such things as family or property.

Though EU accession will not bring any immediate changes to this plan, uncertainty about the tightening of border controls has many cross-border travelers worried.

“I’m afraid. I don’t want there to be any change,” said Lena Ivanova, 40, about to make one of her frequent trips to Ivangorod to check in on her elderly parents.

It is generally accepted that Estonia will not be accepted into the European Union’s Schengen accords for visa-free travel around Europe until 2006 at the earliest.

But it is not clear to most Narva residents what restrictions will be imposed to bring Estonia’s borders into line with the rest of Europe.

Michal Krejza, head of the Political and Economic Section of the European Commission’s delegation to Estonia, says he believes that the current system of facilitated visas would not have to be scrapped for Estonia to meet EU requirements.

A spokesman for Estonia’s Foreign Ministry, however, said the quota system for facilitated visas will come under review Jan. 1 and that Estonia has asked the European Commission for a legal assessment on the issue.

Other EU-related restrictions are already affecting border-crossers.

Regulations introduced by the Estonian government in May, to bring Estonia in line with EU norms, prohibit importing meat and dairy products for personal use, and limit the amount of food products brought in to 1 kilogram.

Now Narva’s poorest shoppers, who frequent Ivangorod’s markets to make their small pensions go further, will have to make multiple trips.

The change also affects those whose families have summer cottages and gardens on the Russian side of the border.

“Everything that we grew there will be hard to bring back over. I don’t know what my parents will have to do; they’ll probably have to sell it,” said Natalya, 18.

Those working in larger spheres, however, are looking forward to improvements that EU membership can bring to Narva, whose economy lags behind the rest of the country’s mainly because its industries were too closely tied to the Soviet economy to survive the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Mikhail Stalnuhhin, chairman of the Narva City Council, said the city’s main problem is a lack of serious investment because of Narva’s reputation as a criminal capital. It’s a reputation that police statistics indicate is undeserved.

“Narva will really start to develop if Estonia joins the European Union,” said Mr. Stalnuhhin, holding out for EU aid.

Despite how much is hanging on the Sept. 14 referendum, most Narva residents will not be able to vote. Thirty-six percent are Estonian citizens, the others being stateless or Russian citizens.

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