NARVA - During the referendum on accession, Narva was practically the only city in Estonia where the gap between for and against votes boiled down to a mere 267 ballots – in favor of accession. Alas, on May 1 the EU flag will be hoisted at the border with Russia, but local residents' attitudes toward the new union are unlikely to change a beat.
Alas, on May 1 the EU flag will be hoisted at the border with Russia, but local residents' attitudes toward the new union are unlikely to change a beat.
Julia, 30, a resident of Narva, is pessimistic about the EU as she does not see any tangible improvement in her life. An ethnic Russian noncitizen, Julia was born in Estonia and has lived here ever since. Still, she tries to keep her hopes up.
"Frankly speaking, I still hope EU accession will stimulate the government to solve our problem. Why do I, born and residing in Estonia, have to prove I have the same rights for the citizenship as a native Estonian. Why do I have to go and take the [language] exam?" she says. "My husband and my daughter are Estonian citizens, but I am a noncitizen. This is absurd."
A significant part of Narva's population, which is divided into three groups – one-third Russian citizens, one-third noncitizens, and the remaining Estonian citizens – was hoping that EU accession would solve the citizenship problem. However, that hope was dashed during the visit of EU Enlargement Commissioner Gunter Verheugen last September when he said the problem of noncitizens was the problem of noncitizens and not of the country or the EU.
In Julia's opinion, the main obstacle to learning Estonian – necessary for many to get the citizenship – is the cost of the language courses and the lack of time to attend. The government's decree on almost full reimbursement of language training expenses for those who pass the exam does not, according to her, minimize the problem of the lack of time and money.
"I was trying to find decent language classes that would allow me to start speaking Estonian, but it was not real. The course costs from 5,000 kroons (320 euros) to 6,000 kroons. The course is really good, but one has to find the money first, and then the free time. So you have to choose between work and language training, and of course I choose work," Julia said.
Still, Narva Mayor Tarmo Tammiste believes there are more EU supporters these days compared to last year, and he says the city is eager to take full advantage of membership.
"We are already starting to take part in various EU programs. I have recently been to the Finnish town of Imatra where we participated in a meeting of the Twin-town Cooperation Network project. Our twin-town is Ivangorod," he says, referring to the Russian town across the river.
In Tammiste's opinion, Narva can offer its unique geographical location to the EU, even more so since from its very foundation the city was both a trade and cultural bridge between the East and West.
"Right now reconstruction of a border crossing and the construction of a new bridge are under discussion," he says.
Furthermore, Narva is unique in that it is close to the country's power generators.
"The proximity of power stations allows power-intensive industries to relocate to Narva, and we also have high labor resources and a structure of labor training that makes the city attractive for investors," Tammiste says.
Also, the problem of getting land for city development projects, one of the obstacles to overall growth, might be solved with EU help. Nowadays it often happens that the Narva municipality is rejected when it requests a land plot from the government to fulfill a project.
"I hope [as a EU member] some priorities will change – for example, in regional development," sarcastically adds Tammiste.
"I would not want to criticize, but it is not only a Narva problem – it affects other towns too. We have to develop, to attract investors, but how?" asks the mayor. "We have no land, and the government is not so willing to give it to us. We are losing investors. I hope it will change in the EU."
Tammiste admits the city will see an outflow of the younger generation after accession, but he adds it will not have a dramatic scale. Neither, he says, can Narva expect a major inflow of foreign immigrants. The number of Russian tourists might, however, increase, says the mayor.