TALLINN - Moscow found itself deluged with criticism from across the continent after its foreign ministry refused to issue a visa to Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.
Russian officials scrambled to defend the act, saying the visa application was handed in late and that the roundtable Paet had wanted to attend wasn't meant for "high-level diplomats."
Ultimately, however, Russia's foreign minister apologized for the misunderstanding and proposed that the two ministers meet next month in Slovenia.
The chairman of the European Parliament's external relations committee, Elmar Brok, said Russia's conduct was worth condemnation.
"It's regrettable that the Russian authorities hid behind formalities in such a situation. This certainly is not an appropriate way of communicating with one's neighbor. The Russian authorities also must bear in mind that Estonia is a member state of the European Union," Brok told the Postimees daily.
A Russian think-tank funded by the government had invited Paet to St. Petersburg for a roundtable talk on border cooperation between Russia and the European Union. The conference, which was organized by the Russian president's administration and the Foreign Ministry, was to pay special attention to cooperation between Estonia and northwestern Russian regions.
Relations between the two countries have soured since Russia removed its signature from two border treaties signed earlier with Estonia and lawmakers in the Baltic state added a statement that Moscow found unacceptable.
Paet accepted the invitation and sent his diplomatic passport to the Russian Embassy. But there officials said a foreign minister of another country could be invited to Russia only by the foreign ministry or government of the host country, and since the St. Petersburg roundtable would not have a sufficiently high profile, there was no need for Paet to attend.
Russia issued a visa to Jaan Ounapuu, regional affairs minister, but upon learning that Paet had been rejected, he turned down the invitation in solidarity.
International reaction was immediate. The European Commission and the European Parliament's external relations committee criticized Moscow. "The decision of the Russian authorities to refuse a visa to Foreign Minister Urmas Paet came as a surprise to the European Commission," said the commission's representative in Estonia, Toivo Klaar.
"Although the argumentation is referring to technical reasons, this certainly does not conform to the spirit or the objectives of the agreement on the simplification of the visa regime between the EU and Russia," he said.
Marko Mihkelson, parliamentary foreign affairs committee deputy chairman, dismissed the explanation by Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky as absurd.
The British ambassador in Moscow expressed disappointment in Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and stressed that refusing a visa to an EU foreign minister came as a surprise in the context of EU-Russian relations. The action was not consistent with efforts to promote interregional cooperation, the ambassador added.
Confronted with a backlash, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Paet on Nov. 11 to express his regret for the instance. He suggested the two meet in early December.
According to Paet, Lavrov said the misunderstanding arose due to problems within Russia's state agencies and that the matter was technical, not political.
Paet, too, expressed his regret at what happened. "It's a pity that a good opportunity to discuss matters that are important for the European Union and Russia was lost," he said.
Lavrov suggested that the two parties meet during the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's summit in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on Dec. 5-6.
Paet accepted Lavrov's proposal. He told Radio Estonia that the meeting could address border treaties as well as other treaties not fully negotiated between Estonia and Russia, including the social insurance agreement, return of cultural property taken to Russia and construction of a new bridge across the Narva.
He added that the exact agenda of the meeting would depend on its duration.
Meanwhile, speaking in St. Petersburg at the roundtable, Yastrzhembsky said he supported the construction of a new bridge over the Narva River. He said Russia was making the respective preparations
Ago Silde, governor of Estonia's Ida-Viru County, said heavy truck traffic across the bridge in the first nine months of this year had increased 40 percent compared with the same period a year ago. "Right now on average 350 large vehicles are passing through the Narva-Ivangorod border checkpoint daily, whereas the bridge was designed for one hundred vehicles per day," he told the Interfax news agency.