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Border pact will open boat route to Russia

  • 2000-08-17
  • Laura Bailey
TALLINN - A Soviet-era ferry route from southern Estonia to Russia will reopen this fall after a decade of disuse, if a border crossing agreement recently presented to Russia is signed by the two countries this fall, said Tartu's deputy mayor, Margus Hanson.

The restored route will take goods and transport tourists for one-day excursions from Tartu in southern Estonia to the historic Russian town of Pskov via the Emajogi River and Lake Peipsi, which straddles the Russian-Estonian border. The old boat line shut down shortly after Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

After meeting with Mayor Mikhail Khoronen of Pskov last week, Hanson said the Tartu city government is very serious about reopening the line in hopes of enhancing tourism in Tartu and strengthening cross-border relations between Tartu and Pskov.

"We expect that tourists, especially from Finland, but also from other foreign countries, will be very interested if they have the possibility to make a one-day trip from Tartu to Russia," he said, explaining that the excursions would bring more overnight tourists to Tartu.

Hanson said Tartu has been wanting to reestablish the line for several years but has gotten little support from the Pskov side until recently. Now with Khoronen as the newly elected mayor, Hanson said he thinks the deal will start to gain momentum.

"The last mayor was quite indifferent. Now the new administration of Pskov is really interested in establishing this route," he said, explaining that Khoronen has been pursuing support for the project from state officials in Moscow.

Part of the problem has been that the harbor in Pskov is in bad condition and cannot receive a large amount of ship traffic.

While the Estonian side is ready to move forward, it must wait for a border agreement to be signed at the state level. The agreement will allow the two cities to establish regular border checkpoints and receive regular ship traffic.

"The goods are ready. The businessmen are waiting. Now it's just a question between the governments," said Ivo Vaider, CEO of Matcom, the transport company planning to open the ferry line.

Technically it is already possible for ships to take goods over the lake, but new permits must be obtained with each shipment, explained Vaider. To export high volumes of freight on a regular basis from Pskov, companies must go through the more expensive trucking route in southeast Estonia.

Vaider explained that Matcom would start its shipping line now, but without the border crossing agreement, he fears only a limited number of ships will be accepted into Pskov.

"We can't make a contract with the export companies and say that the business will keep rolling, because we are never 100 percent sure that all ships will be accepted," he said.

When exactly the agreement will be signed is another issue. Taavi Toom, a spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to say when the agreement might be signed, but Tartu officials hope it will happen when Prime Minister Mart Laar meets with the Russian deputy prime minister for talks this fall.

Toom did say that the holdup is not on the part of the Estonians. "The border agreement has been technically ready, but there seems to be no political will on a certain side."

Once the agreement is signed and the technical issues are settled on both sides, Tartu will be ready to build a border checkpoint immediately, Hanson said. The construction of a checkpoint on the Emajogi River in Tartu could be done in month's time, he said.

To get the project rolling ahead of time, Matcom sent boats with 50 people across the lake for a trial run in July. Vaider, who is hoping to have the line opened sometime this year, said the test went smoothly.

"A lot of people were interested and many people stopped to ask questions about when we would be running again," he said.

The regular ship line will also help a cooperation agreement between Tartu and Pskov that was signed last May to increase cross-border cooperation on mutual problems.

Under the agreement, the two cities will conduct cultural and business exchanges such as a joint municipal economics seminar scheduled for next year and a business contact fair to be held in Tartu in November.

Hanson said a border crossing at the lake would benefit both cities by allowing businessmen and entrepreneurs to travel freely.

In addition, the ferry excursions would not be only of interest to European travelers, but also to Estonian tourists who could compare the less developed town of Pskov with Estonia, Hanson said.

"Now the differences are bigger, because they haven't developed as fast. For Estonians it's quite interesting to recognize how we have developed and see what we were like years ago," Hanson said.