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Divided city looks to EU to improve relations

  • 2002-02-28
  • Nick Coleman
VALKA - High iron gates permanently padlocked and topped with barbed wire block Friendship Street - a small irony for a city divided by freedom and looking toward European Union accession to improve relations.

"When I go to Estonia, the guards tell me not to stay too long, and I feel like a criminal or a hooligan," grumbles pensioner Aleksina Albina, as she hands laundered washing across the border to her son in Valga, Estonia.

She doesn't cross over the border, trying to save space in her passport, which is stamped with each crossing and is expensive to replace when full.

For centuries this community had developed as a single entity under the Russian czars, but with independence after World War I came a border delineated by a British army officer, creating Estonia's Valga and its smaller twin - Valka, Latvia.

Soviet occupation after World War II reunited the towns, but with independence in 1991 again came division, with a chain link fence crossing the town like a scar.

Estonia and Latvia are working closely to prepare for European Union and NATO membership and trade is relatively free. But the re-establishment of the border has complicated life for residents and turned Valka into a pale shadow of its neighbor.

The disparity is evident to Valka's 6,800 residents, who are obliged to cross a checkpoint to the Estonian side for all the amenities expected of a regional center.

Valka has no cinemas, swimming pool or sports center, while the busy streets of Valga are lined with smartly renovated buildings - evidence of the Scandinavian investment that has boosted the town's furniture, clothing and meat processing factories.

"If you ask why this border is so strong, you're given no political, no economic, only absolutely stupid reasons," said Valka Mayor Vents Krauklis.

As they walk or drive to a stream on the edge of town for clean water supplies the people of Valka can only envy Valga, where the water system was recently renovated with a 25.8 million kroon ($1.43 million) contribution from the EU and 8.5 million kroons from Denmark.

"A project is due to start next year to renovate our water system, but this wasn't the best way of doing things," said Krauklis.

While complaints about bureaucratic border crossing procedures are widespread, it is ethnic Russian non-citizens - settlers from the Soviet era - that face the most problems.

Many of them have relatives on the other side of the border but are only allowed to visit the other country for 90 days per year.

Only what Krauklis calls a "gentlemen's agreement" allows non-citizen children from the Latvian side to attend school in Valga.

But this upsets Enno Kase, Valga's deputy mayor, who believes the 30 or so children should attend Valka's own Russian-language school. He accuses non-citizens of manipulating the two countries' social benefit systems to get the best deal and says he is alarmed at the prospect of an influx of workers tempted by wages, which on average are at least double those in Valka.

"We don't yet know all the plusses and minuses of EU membership. Latvians and non-citizens want to come here to find work, but we have an unemployment problem too, and we don't want them taking our jobs," said Kase.

But Krauklis believes free movement of labor cannot come soon enough, as young workers are tempted away to Latvia's capital Riga in search of jobs.

"Hopefully we'll attract foreign investors more evenly once we are in the EU, but we need a special status for Valka-Valga now," he said.