Slowly but steadily the tension in relations between the two neighbors is ebbing. That negotiations are underway for a summit between the Estonian and Russian presidents proves that both sides, once barely on speaking terms, have grown a little closer together.
Russia's negative attitude to NATO expansion to the Baltic states, a row over which branch of the Orthodox church should be registered in Estonia, and double custom tolls are the main thorns in the side for anyone trying to improve relations.
What are the biggest issues in Estonian-Russian relations?
Estonia has been ready for years to develop good-neighborly relations with Russia. The two countries have prepared five economic agreements, which have not yet been signed. Russia has expressed a desire to review the agreements a couple more times. It seems to me that Russia is currently politically not ready to sign any business agreements.
Estonia's relations with Russia are already today viewed as being part of the relations between Russia and the European Union. From Russia's point of view the main obstacle to establishing normal relations with Estonia seems to be the problem of the registration of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate by the Estonian authorities. The Russian side has said clearly that as soon as the church is registered the Estonian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission can start working again on improving business relations.
What is Russia's standpoint on Estonia's NATO aspirations?
We can see some dynamics here. A year ago Russia's position on NATO's enlargement toward Russia's boundaries was stiff, but after the tragic events of Sept. 11 in the U.S. it changed. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told our Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland in a meeting in Kaliningrad two weeks ago very clearly that although Russia was not happy about the accession, it accepts the sovereign right of each country to choose its own security guarantees.
President Putin has also said that Russia cannot dictate to any nation how to ensure its security, but at the same time the expansion of NATO to include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would probably not increase their level of security.
Estonia's consulate in St. Petersburg was attacked last week. There was a noisy meeting in front of the building and the window was smashed with a brick. Do you feel safe here in the Estonian Embassy in Moscow?
It was a regrettable hooligan attack. I don't see any strong political signs behind it. There was a bomb threat here last fall, after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. The Russian side has guaranteed the safety of our embassy as well as other diplomatic representations, and we follow our own safety measures as well. I should say that we feel quite safe here.
Will Estonia joining the EU influence relations with Russia?
This should liven up trade between Estonia and Russia. Becoming the EU's border state and knowing Russia so well, Estonia might become a good connecting link between EU and Russia. Cross-border cooperation is an important issue between the relations of two countries. Considering this, we already have established good connections with St. Petersburg and the Pskov region.
Russia is Estonia's 10th biggest export partner, with a 2.8 percent share in total exports and the fifth import partner with 8.1 percent. How might this change in the future?
Regarding exports to Russia we're in a bad situation. We have a 5.4 billion kroon ($303 million) trade deficit with Russia. Our exports to Russia in 2001 were 6 billion kroons and imports were 11 billion kroons. These figures are regrettably small. But there is nothing Estonian producers can do about it. Since 1995 Russia has imposed double customs tariffs on Estonian products, which makes it very difficult for Estonian producers to enter the Russian market.
When will Russia abolish the double tariffs?
Imposing them was their sovereign decision. Russia can unilaterally abolish them, because it has unilaterally enforced it. It depends a lot on the general political atmosphere. They will most likely be abolished when Russia becomes a member of the World Trade Organization.
What's the business climate like in Russia today?
The business climate has improved in the last few years, but it's still uncertain. Several large international companies have come here lately. The bigger the company the more secure it feels itself here.
One of the biggest problems is that Russia has yet not carried out banking reform. There are many commercial banks the survival of which is difficult to estimate. The situation is similar to what we had in Estonia at the beginning of the 1990s, when some banks merged and others went into bankruptcy.
The situation is improving and Russia itself wants foreign companies to come. The climate is advantageous also because income tax is very low. It's 13 percent. The time to experiment and start a business here will come in the near future.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe closed its missions in Latvia and Estonia at the end of December, a sign it is satisfied that the rights of the Russian minority are being protected. When will Russia be satisfied with the minority situation in Estonia?
Russian diplomats have told me they regret the OSCE left Estonia and Latvia. They think there are still problems we should solve under international supervision. This has something to do with active lobbying by some non-citizens in Estonia, who have not overcome the relics of the past and believe that Russian should become the state's second official language.
The new government is reviewing the question of maintaining Russian schools. Time will tell whether the demand for a Russian secondary school education remains. The Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations are of the opinion that the human rights of non-Estonians are guaranteed and correspond to international standards. Russia's disagreement is just a different opinion.