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Raadi Airport is Tartu's white elephant

  • 2000-01-06
  • By Joseph Enge
The snow falls gently, blanketing the former Soviet airbase next to Tartu, Estonia. Once the famed Soviet Tu-22m "Backfire" bombers with nuclear strike capability menaced NATO
from this three kilometer long runway. Now, there are only empty
aircraft embankments with a few discarded screws to terrorize the
tires of visitors. Silence reigns where once the noise of jet engines
disturbed the residents of Tartu.

A lonely Christmas tree stands atop a control tower that will likely
never again be used to direct air traffic. There will be no Y2K
aircraft control problems to report here as the New Year rolls in.

The saga of the Raadi Airport is ongoing and indefinite. It was the
site of Estonia's first airplane flight in 1912 in what was a cavalry
field. A military airfield was built there during the early years of
Estonian independence.

During World War II, the Germans expanded it. After the war, the
Soviets designated it a site for the forward deployment of strategic
bombers. The extensive expansion of the runway to 2500 meters was
completed in 1956. An additional 500 meters was added in 1975 to
accommodate the Tu-22m bombers.

Nestled against the city of Tartu, only two kilometers from the
runway to the city center, any strike against it would have injured
civilians. A separate storage facility near Tartu had nuclear
warheads that could be quickly assembled and dispatched to the
bombers at the airfield.

The presence of the airfield had a great impact on life in Tartu and
its development. The noise was irritating. Tartu became a closed
city. People were prohibited from climbing atop the Toomkirik ruins
at the University of Tartu because of the direct view it gives of the
airfield. It became a tradition among university students to flaunt
the authorities and celebrate with a drink while enjoying the vista
after a clandestine evening climb.

The direct road,which remains, was used for centuries from Tartu to
Narva. It was closed along the section running next to the
field,which was an indirect connection out of the city.In addition to
affecting highway development, it kept the city from expanding to
the northeast or east, resulting in Tartu's current layout.

The commanding general of Raadi during the crucial years of 1987 to
1990 was Dzhakhar Dudayev. In 1991 he became Chechnya's first
president.

General Dudayev refused Moscow's order to attack the pro-independence
movement in Estonia during the Singing Revolution. Instead he ordered
his troops to stay in their barracks and allowed the Estonian
national flag to fly over the base. His actions prevented bloodshed
in Estonia during those touchy times and earned him a great deal of
respect throughout the Baltics.

Baltic sympathy for the aspiration of Chechen independence dates from
these events and continues despite Dudayev's death in April 1996 when
Russian forces targeted him during the first Russian assault of
Chechnya.

The Russians pulled out of Raadi in the summer of 1993. The Estonian
national government gave the land and facilities to the three local
jurisdictions it encompasses: the City of Tartu, Tartu Parish, and
Luunja Parish. The three municipalities formed the joint stock
company Tartu Raadi Airport Ltd. for its development as an airport.

The expansions of the airport during Soviet times have left a number
of former landowners with claims for the return of their property.
Five of the former owners refused what they considered to be well
below market value compensation and sought the land's return.In
September 1998 Andrus Ansip, the newly elected mayor of Tartu, was
asked by the city council his views on Raadi's development as an
airport.

He was the first public official to say it was neither right nor
feasible to restore or invest money into developing it as an airport.
He noted that Tartu already has an operational civil airport,
Ulenurme, and that the considerable amount of money required for
Raadi to become operational and the lack of market demand made the
project unfeasible.

The death knell for the project came with a subsequent court decision
in favor of land claimant, Anto Raukas, stating that it was illegal
to assign his property to the airport. Since July 1999, Tartu Parish
has been in the process of returning the land to the five landowners
that turned down the compensation offered by Tartu Raadi Airport Ltd..

Working on behalf of land claimant Hans Kobin who lives in New York,
Paivu Kull was able to get Kobin's property surveyed in September.
The struggle of Kobin and Raukas to get their property back is just
coming to an end, but Raadi's future remains up in the air.

The manager of Raadi Airport Ltd., Vello Peedi-maa, said, "Eesti
Project is working on a development study, and it will be completed
sometime in March or April." Peedimaa noted that, "the study will
look into the possibilities of auto racing, go-carts, and motocross."

Presently air travelers can arrange to fly into Tartu at the Ulenurme
airfield which is designated Tartu Airport. The director of Tartu
Airport, Rein Mark, is arranging small regular flights to Helsinki,
Stockholm, and Riga.

Described as "concrete pollution" by Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip, Raadi
Airport enters the new century like the sacred white elephant of
Siam. It can neither be used nor destroyed.