Estonian parliamentarians visit Moscow

The Russian-Estonian border still lacks proper legal demarcation. That the two countries are headed for a likely solution became obvious in April as a delegation of Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) visited Russia. The intensive program schedule was compensated by a friendly spring atmosphere at Moscow meetings.

The upper chamber of Russian parliament hosted a joint meeting of the Federation Council committee on international affairs and foreign affairs commission of Riigikogu. “The meeting continues the work to resume and revive permanent consultations between us which testifies to the importance of parliamentary ties between neighboring countries”, said committee chairman Mikhail Margelov who represents Pskov region that borders on Estonia. His Estonian counterpart Marko Mihkelson agreed and was pleased to say that such meetings have become traditional and allow parliamentarians to frankly discuss all vital issues.

Margelov specified that consultations have been held for over ten years and interlocutors know well how to discuss relationship “regardless of the acuteness”. Only last year three meetings were held on various platforms in Estonia and Pskov. “Now we know the more practical the discussed issues are the better it is for general relations between peoples,” he told Amber Bridge. The senator admitted that numerous unresolved issues have accumulated related to various agreements that have not yet become documents. Border treaties are the main ones.

The Russian-Estonian state border line was established in 2005 after nearly eleven years of negotiations. Treaties on land and water borders were signed. However during ratification Estonian parliament introduced in the preamble a reference to 1920 Tartu peace treaty in a context which preserved the possibility of territorial claims to Russia. In response Moscow recalled its signature and the border issue remained legally unresolved. Consultations resumed in 2012.

Margelov refused to elaborate on textual details. “Diplomats discuss them. We should not interfere. It is important that lawmakers are ready to do their job.”

The main thesis of the talks in April was that life demands to finally resolve the issue. Cooperation is to build up on the basis. The four “M”, like journalists dub Margelov and Mihkelson by the first letters in the names and surnames, assured that both sides are interested in constructive and good-neighborly relations. Therefore, the dialogue has resumed on three levels – foreign ministry, parliaments, and prime ministers.

Margelov recalled the wellknown Marxist postulate saying that “politics are concentrated expression of economy” and recalled that Russia occupies the first place in Estonian exports. The flow of Russian tourists is growing and cross-border cooperation is expanding. His Estonian counterpart agreed: “Good-neighborly relations with Russia are very important important to us. Many projects which we discussed in July in southern Estonia and Pskov region are being implemented. They prompted us to again discuss the border treaty.” Asked about a possible “reset” in the sphere the lawmakers were unanimous in saying the political and economic situation has changed. Mihkelson expressed hope the problem may be resolved this time in the interests of both parties. Parliament has issued a clear mandate to the government regarding negotiations. For Tallinn the legal regulation of the border and the principle of legal succession are important.

Speaking about changing relationship Margelov cited an important fact: when Federation Council members were in southern Estonia in July they for the first time visited Estonian military base – Kuperjanov Battalion, and then Estonian colleagues visited the 76th airborne division in Pskov. After a meeting in Estonian Otepe they also visited Barclay de Tolli Mausoleum in JЫgeveste. The level of trust at negotiations is high enough for parliamentarians “not to argue what we can cede or not, but tell each pragmatic, and aimed at future.” Moscow and Tallinn have to dismantle artificial mistrust to each other. Reciprocal visits by politicians to military units on both sides of the border promote it. It is a political signal. Russia and Estonia are and will remain neighbors forever. We have to help each other live together in united Europe specifically when the global financial system and economy are facing serious challenges.”

After the signing of border agreements it will be necessary to make an inventory of joint projects. The talk is about the abolition of double taxation and renovation of border infrastructure in the area of Narva-Ivangorod. In summer lawmakers inspected operations of border checkpoints and got acquainted in detail with Koidula checkpoint. Margelov believes upgraded railway communications are a vital issue. Why is there no shuttle train between Pskov and Tartu? For many residents of Pskov and Novgorod regions it would become a convenient and cheap route to EU border space. Margelov also recalled the initiative of the colleagues to create in Pskov region a partner of Estonian research project Julemiste City or a smart business city .

Jointly with Singapore a big business incubator is being built in Pskov region. It is a technopark with a free economic zone which can be of interest for neighbors. Estonian seaports are unique and can be successfully used by Russia. For example, handling of some types of chemical products is still impossible at Russian terminals. Therefore, the port of Sillamae operates like a docking unit for Russian companies.

Cooperation could progress better on all guidelines had the issue of border treaties been finally dropped, Margelov said. Their signing would give an impulse to active development of mutually beneficial relations and enhanced trust. The senator said he is optimistic that discussions now focus on technical details as political issues have been resolved to a major extent.

The head of the Estonian delegation quoted Prime Minister Andrus Ansip as saying that the signing of border treaties will positively influence economy. After the conference of heads of government of the Baltic Sea region held in St. Petersburg on April 5-6 and a meeting on its sidelines with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev Ansip said in an interview: “We have an operating border but we would like to settle relations in the issue. When border agreements come into force. . . Russia will invest into simplified border crossing.” As a result the “agreement will render positive longterm influence on the economy.” The prime minister also said that Tallinn and Moscow “have come very close to the signing of a border document however there is no final solution yet.” Ansip expressed hope the sides will find it.

A vital issue for both countries is the introduction of a visa-free regime. There are no major contradictions between parliamentarians on it. Estonia sees no political obstacles for signing an agreement with Russia on visa-free travel. Marko Mihkelson said: “We have been discussing the idea with our colleagues in Brussels for long. Not only we but also the EU is interested in visa-free regime.” The introduction of the regime will considerably increase the flow of Russian tourists and business activity .

Despite positive dynamic in negotiations it is impossible to claim that “everything around is blue and green.” Dmitry Medvedev admitted that for the given moment the bilateral relationship “unfortunately, is not on the highest level by many parameters.” ” If we abandon the schemes which are often ideological, we can give a good impulse to economic cooperation and people-to-people contacts.” This is the main recipe for normalization of relations.

The delegation of the foreign affairs commission of Riigikogu also met Federation Council Deputy Chairman Alexander Torshin who represents the Republic of Mary El in the upper house. He called on Estonian lawmakers to visit not only Moscow but also Russian regions and shared his positive impressions of a recent tourist trip with his wife to Estonia. In response Marko Mihkelson said it would be good if womenspeakers of both chambers meet – Valentina Matviyenko and Ene Ergma – to discuss parliamentary cooperation of both countries.

After the talks in the Federation Council the guests noticed a piano of Estonia brand in the lounge. Riigikogu lawmakers checked its sound and remained satisfied.

The next item of the program was lunch with Vladimir Titov, Russian deputy (now first deputy) minister of foreign affairs. The meeting took place in the Reception House of the Russian foreign ministry in Spiridonovka Street. According to Mihkelson, they discussed border negotiations. The talks exposed no obstacles to further work on the text of the agreement. However the time of the third meeting of delegations from both countries was not agreed. An agreement on avoiding double taxation was also discussed, as well as agreements on higher education and interaction in case of emergencies.

The Riigikogu delegation also met Chairman of the State Duma committee on international affairs Alexei Pushkov and President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Alexander Shokhin.

The finishing stroke of the Moscow visit by Riigikogu delegation was a meeting with lecturers and students of MGIMO. Together with lawmakers the institute was visited by Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Estonia to the Russian Federation Juri Luik. Guests were welcomed by MGIMO Director for international cooperation and public relations Andrei Silantyev and Director of MGIMO Institute of International Research Alexander Orlov .

Summing up the results of the Moscow visit Marko Mihkelson said State Duma lawmakers plan to visit Tallinn (by the end of the year) while colleagues from Federation Council will meet on the river, i.e. in Narva and Ivangorod to discuss border infrastructure.

Alexander Orlov told the guests about MGIMO which is one of the biggest scientific and educational centers in Russia. He said there is major interest in MGIMO in Estonia. He expressed hope relations will mount in future to cap a shortage of creative contacts between scientists and experts of Russia and Estonia. Professor Lev Voronkov called on Estonian guests to pay major attention to students present in the hall. Many of them will work in the Russian embassy in Tallinn in the near future and will do everything possible to enhance our relationship. Speaking about cross-border cooperation lawmaker from Ida-Vyrumaa Yevgeny Osinovsky said the absence of a border agreement does not create obstacles for cooperation and it develops fruitfully. However he recalled bureaucratic problems existing in the current fiscal year of the European Union which impede the allocation of EU funds to organizations dealing with infr astructure problems.

Osinovsky also spoke about renovation of fortresses in Narva-Ivangorod and expressed hope that after completion it would be possible to build a new bridge across the Narva River which is very necessary today. He also recalled important precedent in 2012 when auditors of the Russian Audit Chamber and Estonian State Control prepared a joint report with recommen dations of controlling agencies for environmental protection of Chudskoe Lake and reasonable use of trans-border water reserves, as well as movement of goods and vehicles through border and customs checkpoints of Russia and Estonia. The lawmaker stressed that cross-border cooperation in Narva-Ivangorod has specific humanitarian significance as for many years the region was the only space where people did not perceive the presence of the border. A visa-free regime is therefore specifically vital for the region.

Senior MGIMO research fellow and Executive Director of the Baltic Civilization Institute Alexander Chechevishnikov asked Estonian guests to specify the major aspect of negotiations. “Estonian political circles are currently discussing the possibility to “package” border agreements and the solution of a number of infrastructure problems in cross-border cooperation. Can such “packaging” jeopardize progress in border agreements? You also met Vladimir Titov yesterday. Can you add something to the information posted on the Russian foreign ministry website?

Marko Mihkelson thanked for the question which “allows to clearly state that you are wrong. Naturally, the fact of discussing various issues can be interpreted as their interdependence. Our position aims at resolving various issues without interlinking them.” He stressed that border agreements are drafted in strict compliance with the approach and recalled that yet in 2004 Estonia ratified the agreement on avoiding double taxation which still awaits Russian ratification. The drafting of other agreements is on a high level – on diplomatic property, cross-border cooperation, etc. An agreement on pensions has been concluded. They were all drafted separately. As for the meeting with Vladimir Titov, it was constructive. “We spoke not only about border. We discussed a wide range of problems as Mr. Titov is in charge in the foreign ministry of cooperation with European states. Ninety minutes of the meeting passed quickly. It w as very interesting.”

Lawmaker Vladimir Velman noted a radical improvement in tonality of communications during the visit to the Russian capital. He recalled that last time Estonian lawmakers met colleagues from the State Duma nine years ago. Much has changed since then. Today many Pskov residents go on holidays to Tartu and other Estonian regions. Contacts are not only limited by Pskov, they develop also with Novgorod region. Velman noted also positive work of foreign affairs ministries of both countries in promoting conditions for economic and cultural development of Setu people living in border territories. Thus, the resolution of the border issue will crown multi-faceted cooperation taking place on the Russian-Estonian border.

In answer to the question from Lev Voronkov about the initiative of Thorvald Stoltenberg who proposed in 2009 to five northern countries a program to strengthen military and foreign policy potential Ambassador Juri Luik said there were numerous proposals regarding the security policy of regional countries. Stoltenberg proposed to create a common peacekeeping force for northern European countries. However the reality showed that to carry out even soft operations it is necessary to have at least one major country which would provide logistics, hardware, and arrange evacuation. “So far we have not identified a peacekeeping operation in which only weak countries would participate.” Luik recalled there were problems in airspace defense. Practice showed it is impossible to resolve them without major countries only by North European countries. The ambassador said a positive aspect of defense cooperation were joint military purchases , e.g. radar purchases by Finland and Estonia. He stressed that numerous interesting ideas are voiced but not all of them can be implemented in the region.

MGIMO director’s aide Vladislav Vorotnikov complained that for nine years since he entered the institute there was no possibility to meet Estonian parliamentarians in the building of the institute. Now time has come. Vorotnikov spoke about public and academic diplomacy and asked whether it was possible to launch a Russian-Estonian commission of historians like it happened with other Baltic countries. The question was answered by Marko Mihkelson, an historian by education. He said historians should have free access to archive sources. The Estonian embassy in Moscow has intensified presentations of historic publications including joint ones of late which is more productive than other formats.

Juri Luik, in his turn, said Estonian historians often complain about problems in accessing Russian archives and expressed hope MGIMO would help resolve them. In this connection it would be appropriate to recall the opinion of distinguished Estonian historian and Professor Magnus Ilmjarv expressed in an interview with the Amber Bridge (2011 #4, page 37). He said Russian archives are open while Estonian historians often lack money for work in Russia. Work in archives is an art and is productive only when researcher understands which documents can keep a trace of various developments and how to find them in archives.

Several questions were asked by students. Chairwoman of Estonian Student Club of MGIMO Sonya Afanasyeva asked lawmakers to comment the intention of Chairman of the State Duma committee on international relations Alexsey Pushkov to file a request to the Strasbourg Court regarding the activities of the language commission of Estonia. Yevgeny Osinovsky said the issues related to the Russian language were discussed a day before at a meeting in Duma and assured that Estonia has always been inclined to cooperate with international organizations and comply with its international commitments. However he admitted that language issues in Estonia are very emotional for well-known historic reasons. Another student from Estonia, Georgy Makhmurov, asked about prospects of construction of a high-speed railway from Moscow to Tallinn. Marko Mihkelson said the agenda currently includes simplifying customs procedures on railway transport according to those enforced on Moscow-Helsinki and St. Petersburg-Helsinki trains.

In one of the interviews Marko Mihkelson said both countries are engaged in constructive dialogue although there are still many problems. Time is necessary for major changes. It is in the interests of Estonia to have integrated society and common home. It is necessary to take steps which make us competitive on the international labor market. Estonians currently speak also Russian, Finnish, and English.

In Estonia like in many Baltic countries there are calls to stop living with old hard feelings. Historian Mihkelson agreed we should not always and everywhere speak about the past as it sets up “an emotional trap”. We have to remember the past but look into the future. Estonia wants to maintain very good-neighborly relations with Russia which are beneficial for both countries.

Lyudmila Yermakova,


for Amber Bridge

using the site materials