Going to the 'other side' will now require a visa

  • 2000-04-13
  • By Brooke Donald
VARSKA, Estonia - A few times every month, Olga Robkina crosses the border into Russia to visit her mother, go to church and bring flowers to the grave sites of family members. Even though she carries a blue Estonian passport, Robkina has avoided the difficulties of getting to the 'other side' that other foreigners face, namely the necessity of having an entry visa.

Robkina is one of about 4,000 in Estonia's Setu region that hugs the southeastern border with Russia, on a list that allows free passage - no documents required into the territory of Estonia's largest neighbor to observe religious holidays.

By the end of the year, however, a new border crossing regime will be implemented that will require all people living in Estonia without a Russian or former Soviet Union passport to obtain a visa before they can enter Russia, ending the nine year simplified procedure for the Setu people.

"For a long time people have been talking about not knowing how long we will be able to go to the other side like we can now," said Robkina, director of the cultural house.

The rules were changed during a regular consular meeting between Russian and Estonian authorities on April 3 and 4 in Estonia's northwest sea resort, Haapsalu, and will also affect approximately 8,000 people living in the northeastern border cities of Narva in Estonia and Ivangorod in Russia.

The Setu region in Estonia actually runs into Russian territory, with Russia's Petseri, about 5 km from the border, as the region's historic capital, dating back to the beginning of the 18th century when Estonia was incorporated into the Russian empire.

Since Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union almost a decade ago, a national border line has split the region in two, with Setus living in both the western and eastern parts of the region. Some argue that upon drawing borders after the collapse of the USSR, the Petseri district should have become part of Estonia.

Varska, on the Estonian side, has since become the unofficial capital of the region.

Estimates put the population of Setus in Estonia at around 5,000-6,000 and in Russia at around 10,000. Figures in Estonia are hard to nail down, however, because Setu people are counted as Estonians in the national census.

The simplified border procedures were settled on to allow the Setu people living in the border regions to maintain their cultural, religious and family ties that stretch across national boundaries and centuries of official ruling governments.

The majority of Setu consider themselves Estonian, although they speak a different dialect and typically belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The reason for the change in border crossing requirements, explained Taavi Toom, spokesman at Estonia's Foreign Ministry, is to level the playing field for all Estonians wishing to enter Russia because currently the system is "very vague" and "unequal." The 1991 simplified border agreement between the two countries was also only temporary.

"In Narva, people can cross the border many times in one day but the Setu people can only go on certain holy days," he said. "This regime is not equal. The new one should help."

Another reason for the new visa requirement is to get Estonia in line with European Union regulations.

The new regime will require an entry visa, but for humanitarian reasons the government decided many of the residents in the border towns will be issued multiple-entry visas free of charge - to visit family members, maintain grave sites and observe religious holidays. People owning property in Russia will also be eligible for a no-fee visa. Basically, the same people who are on the lists now who can enter into Russia without a visa, will be eligible for a visa free of charge, according to the Estonian border guard.

"We will do background checks to make sure that the people who are applying for the free visas actually meet the conditions. Since the lists were drawn up, situations have changed, so we want to verify everything," said Ago Tikk, senior official of the frontier department at the border guard.

Robkina is unsure what the new agreement will mean for her and fellow Setus who cross into Russia whenever they have the opportunity. She sees problems with the current regime, but is skeptical of the new one.

"Right now it is a problem because we can only go on certain days. If the day is during the week, I have to work," she said. The new regime would allow Setus to cross the border at their own convenience, not just on religious days, similar to the current situation of residents in Narva.

"But, nothing is for free," she added, referring to the government's proposition to hand-out multiple entry visas at no cost. "To enter Russia you need proof of health insurance, that means 60 rubles every time I go because I have to buy it on the border."

Laine Lovi, director of the Setu Farm Museum, also foresees problems in the coming months as the new border agreement goes into effect. Unclear about the new requirements - the government is tight-lipped about specifics as they are still being hammered out- Lovi is worried about who, in fact, will be awarded the free visa.

"The question is, 'How many will be given out?'" she said. "What about old people, how will this affect them?"

Lovi admits, however, that the current system is not ideal, citing the unfair regulations that the government hopes to remedy that allow Narva residents to enter on any date, whereas Setu can only visit a few times each month.

"We go rarely to Petseri," Lovi said. "It is a problem. There are long waits at the border, the border crossing is far from home. It is hard to get to church on time when we do go, especially now because of the time difference."

Despite the uncertainty of the new crossing, one thing is for sure, say area residents: a more secure border -and equal treatment of border crossers -may mean more economic opportunities for the region.

"Estonians go to the other side because of family ties. But Russians come here because they can sell things and there are more opportunities," said Konstantin Ojaver, chairman of Varska's district council. "The new requirements [limiting the number of people coming in from Russia as well] may replace the illegal selling of goods here and increase legitimate shops in our region."