Tartu to revitalize ancient river route to Russia

  • 2002-05-29
  • Kristjan Teder

The Estonian university town of Tartu and the city of Pskov, Russia, are eager to restore a centuries-old waterway through the Emajogi River and Lake Peipsi, seeking mutual benefits in both trade and tourism.

The Estonian Maritime Board will commission a new EVA-325 craft designed for work in inland waters on May 30 in Tartu. The Maritime Board announced a public procurement tender to replace a much older, worn-out vessel.

The winning tender came from the Finnish shipyard Uudenkau-pungin Tyovene. Estonian shipbuilders did not take part in the competition.

The ship will cost about 5 million kroons ($300,000) to build.

Visionary activists dream of attracting some 450 million kroons in investments and sowing the wild riverbanks with tourist attractions.

The Port of Tartu, which all but died out after shipping links to Russia were cut in 1992, is already brushing up and working out customs and border patrol solutions.

Primary customs procedures are to be dealt with in Praaga on Estonia's eastern border, while more in-depth problems will have to be taken care of in Tartu.

Tartu's businessmen are hopeful and have promised to have the first tourists on board as early as July.

After years of bumbling, legal obstacles to the scheme are finally being cleared. In March, Estonia's Minister of Economic Affairs Liina Tonisson and Sergei Frank, Russian minister of transport, signed a shipping agreement on the Lake Peipsi basin, which also comprises lakes Lëmmijërv and Pskov.

A border traffic agreement remains. It has yet to be finalized by the foreign ministries. Peipsi, Europe's fifth largest natural lake with an area of 3,555 square kilometers, is split between Estonia and Russia. With the border running midway through the 143-kilometer-long body of water, crossing issues have proven a tough task.

But the time has come to exploit the lake's potential.

"Our fleet is ready. Port construction is on its way and traffic will be launched as soon as all hurdles are cleared," said Alo Veedla, spokesman for the Port of Tartu.

According to ambitious estimates, as many as 10,000 cruise tourists could be served in the immediate holiday season.

Final solutions may be at hand. Pending Estonia's accession to the European Union, Russia is widely seen to be rethinking its rigid policies toward the Baltics.

Pskov's administration is trying to press Moscow for more favorable conditions for communicating with its Western neighbors.

With Russia's economy still ailing, the former trade hub wants to grab a share of the Baltics' economic success.

The post-Soviet revival of Pskov, once among Russia's richest regions thanks to a flourishing trade and flax industry, has so far relied mostly on timber exports. Peat extraction is another emerging field.

The Tartu-Pskov friendship agreement, signed in 2000 and envisaging frequent tourism and cultural ties, has not yet brought visible results. That aside, all parties have agreed that tourism is a prospective pot of gold.

The banks of the Emajogi hide several undiscovered pearls, such as the serene Karkna monastery. Then there are the untouched waters of Estonia's two biggest lakes. And the history of the two cities at either end of the route, Tartu and Pskov, dates back to the 10th century.

The route would also be a shot at rebalancing Estonia's Tallinn-centered tourism pattern, potentially drawing a share of Finnish visitors to a joyride in Estonian's central and eastern waters.

Pskov, on the other hand, is hoping to draw attention to the atmosphere of its churches and chipped but authentic historic buildings.

The commercial transport aspect to reviving the Peipsi route has not been put aside either. Inspired by a 1997 decision by the European Council declaring inland waterways the cheapest means of transport - and, therefore eligible for billions of euros in budgetary aid - organizers hope to draw financing from the union's ISPA Foundation, among others.

"The idea is to view the river as a resource, not a sewer, as it has often been before," said Eero Mikenberg, founder of the Emajogi Initiative Group, which is currently putting together high-flying investment plans.

However, before being fit for commercial traffic, the river needs many improvements - starting with dredging - to accommodate port installations. The Tartu-Pskov waterway is well worth it, Mikenberg believes.

"They would get our tourists; we would have their timber and other resources. Oil transit should not be excluded either," he said.

The Emajogi, "the mother river" in English, is Estonia's largest and only fully navigable river, stretching some 100 kilometers to Peipsi from the heart of Estonia. Its water catchment area covers about 10,000 square kilometers, which is almost a quarter of Estonia's entire territory.

Not so impressive in width, its banks are about 50 meters apart on average, and its depth ranges from 2 meters to 10 meters.

Until now, only fishermen have exploited the river's potential between lakes Vortsjërv, in central Estonia, and Peipsi. Small ships move on the Tartu-Vortsjërv route, but a lack of regular communication and decent services have hindered progress.

Optimism about the development plans is not universal, however. Some riverside dwellers and conservationists claim frequent ship traffic would erode the riverbanks and the hordes of tourists that might show up are likely to litter its more picturesque spots.