A border runs through it

  • 2004-05-27
  • By Aaron Eglitis
VALGA/VALKA - If there's one place in the Baltics where EU accession symbolizes a long-awaited breakthrough, it's in Valga/Valka, a city split in half by an international border that materialized in 1991 with the advent of Baltic independence.

For the past 12 years residents of this serene town on the Estonian-Latvian border have had to wait in line as officials entered passport data into computers. Meetings and social events were often complicated, if not ruined altogether, by hours spent waiting at the barrier trying to get to the other side of town.
Now, after May 1, residents merely flash their passports, often in mid-stride, as they cross the border.
"I think this is the only town in Latvia where people are really happy about the EU," Valka Mayor Vents Armands Krauklis said. "It's five times easier to cross the border for citizens now."
Other benefits from EU membership, said Krauklis, are eased customs regulations and freer labor markets. As mayor of Valka, the smaller and somewhat less developed Latvian side of the city, he is particularly happy to see more employment opportunities for his residents.
But for the average Valka resident, the best post-accession bonus is simply being able to cross the border quickly in order to buy cheap staples in Valga. Sugar, for instance, is some 60 percent cheaper in Estonia. Also, before accession residents had to buy expensive auto insurance if they wanted to drive on the other side of the border; now they can use the policy issued at home.
One could even say that after May 1, Valga and Valka have completed a full circle since August 1991, when the two towns, though located in separate Soviet republics, existed as virtually one city. Travel between them was open, and the lingua franca was Russian.
Still, not everyone can reap the benefits of EU accession. Noncitizens must still endure the full passport inspection and are allowed to spend a total of 90 days per calendar year on the other side of the border. This is something the cities' leaders would like to see addressed by Baltic leadership, if not Brussels.
"If these noncitizens live in Valka or Valga, why not make a special agreement at least for them?" Krauklis asked.
But town leaders aren't keeping their fingers crossed. In fact, it took them five years to convince Riga and Tallinn to open up a town customs check so that foreigners could cross the border at the same place residents do, rather than travel seven kilometers out of the way.
"They don't understand us in Tallinn and Riga," Unda Ozolina, deputy mayor of Valka, said.


For hundreds of years German barons ruled the city of Walk. Later it came under the control of the Russian empire. When World War I ended in November 1918, fighting continued in Estonia and Latvia for another two years between communists, czarist forces, Germans and indigenous military units struggling for independence.
Since Estonian volunteers aided Latvians at the battle of Cesis, a decisive victory against the German army, the British colonel who drew the post-war borders divided Walk down the river Varzupite, a small creak that meanders through the center of the city, but awarded a larger portion - nearly two-thirds - to Estonia.
The names of the two halves were subsequently Estonianized (Valga) and Latvianized (Valka).
During the interwar period, most inhabitants amazingly spoke both Estonian and Latvian. However after World War II, Russian became the primary language of communication.
In the heady days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the borders were again raised, causing much confusion and hardship and dividing families caught on different sides of the border. Remarkably, however, since most of the town's infrastructure - particularly water and electricity - had been developed during the first period of sovereignty, the two sides were largely able to function independent of one another.
Still, there was a disruption in employment opportunities - workers were suddenly unable to get to the factory on the other side of town - and the railroad connecting the two towns shut down completely.
Valka now boasts 7,000 inhabitants, while Valga has some 14,000.


The years of independence have created something of an economic rift between Valga and Valka. With so many other development priorities, leaders in Riga and Tallinn often skip over the city on the border.
"We share almost nothing right now outside of sports or cultural projects," Valga Mayor Margus Lepik said.
"We don't cooperate, we compete," said Ozolina. As an example, she cited each city's efforts to build separate sports facilities, whereas in a community of 21,000, it would make sense to have one.
Still, the mayors meet regularly and reportedly get along well. Together they have a number of projects they would like to see get off the ground.
"We have a lot of planned projects for the future, like a common bus line," said Lepik.
Krauklis dreams to one day resurrect Valga/Valka's former status as a major railway hub for international trade. Now that they are on the edge of the EU, he believes it is possible.
Another challenge will be promoting tourism. Currently, there is almost nowhere for tourists to spend the night: Valka has only one guesthouse with 10 rooms, while Valga offers an unappetizing Soviet-era hotel. But given the town's unique dichotomy - one of six such places in the world, according to Krausklis - and the pristine countryside, tourists could flock to the area.
Otherwise, cooperation between the two towns is progressing, particularly in the areas of culture, sports and education. For instance, in 1999 Valka opened the Latvian-Estonian Institute, a language and seminar center that is affiliated with University of Latvia, and three years later Valga opened the Estonian-Latvian Institute, which has an analogous status. This year they hope to open a vocational school and attract young adults on both sides of the border.
In the future, Valga/Valka will benefit from increasing European integration. Admission to the Schengen agreement will bring the border down de jure, and adoption of the euro will allow residents to spend freely "on the other side."