Estonia: Narva, the city where the EU and Russia meet | International
In Narva, the third most populous city in Estonia, it is difficult to find someone who speaks Estonian. Located on the border with Russia, every week more than a thousand Ukrainian refugees arrive in the town, where 97% of its 60,000 inhabitants are Russophones and where the Kremlin’s propaganda has permeated for years. “There are people here who blindly support the offensive in Ukraine,” admits Olga Lopatina, a 27-year-old waitress, at a bus stop. “But they are few; and the majority, elderly. I do not have any friends who are not clearly against it, ”she qualifies.
The Narva River separates the city of the same name from the Russian Ivángorod (10,000 inhabitants). Two medieval fortresses stand out on both sides. The one to the west, built by Danes in the second half of the 13th century; the eastern one, by Russians in 1492. Traffic on the main bridge that connects Estonia and its gigantic neighbor has been significantly reduced by the sanctions that the EU has imposed on Russia, although there are still more than 3,000 daily crossings between both directions, both in vehicles and on foot. Russian citizens enter EU territory to buy products that have been banned in their country, while some inhabitants of Narva still travel frequently to St. Petersburg, which is closer than Tallinn, the Estonian capital.
For centuries, the Russophone population in Narva was a minority. In 1944, Soviet troops bombarded the Nazi-occupied city for months. Most of its inhabitants left the area before it came under the control of the USSR. And almost all Estonians who chose to stay among the ruins ended up being deported to Siberia. The city was repopulated in the following years with tens of thousands of Russians. After the independence of Estonia, in 1991, most of the citizens of the border town did not receive passports from the Baltic country. To do this, they had to meet one of these requirements: prove that their relatives had lived in independent Estonia between the wars, have an Estonian surname, or pass an exam in what had just become the only official language.
Currently, 47% of the inhabitants of Narva are of Estonian nationality; 36% have a Russian passport; and the rest are stateless, have a residence permit and the right to most social benefits, in addition to documentation that facilitates access to Russia, but they cannot vote in the parliamentary or presidential elections of the Baltic country. For the last three decades, Russian TV and radio channels have been much more popular in Narva than Estonian ones. However, after the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine at the end of February, the Russian and Belarusian media were banned from Estonia.
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“With the heat at home and without being able to watch television, I have no choice but to spend the day sitting on this bench,” says Galina Balobova, a 77-year-old Russian woman whose hair is covered with a gray scarf. “They have banned the Russian channels because they say they broadcast propaganda, but the European media are the ones that really intoxicate,” she says as she fans herself with a supermarket brochure. “Ukraine has provoked the war by massacring the inhabitants of Donbas, who only want to be free”, declares the old woman openly, in a residential neighborhood where there are only buildings of Soviet origin. “If the US didn’t send all those modern and expensive weapons, the matter would already be resolved and civilians wouldn’t have died,” she concludes.
Unlike in Tallinn, where Ukrainian flags are seen on every street, in Narva there are practically none. The most visible is in a three-story building a few meters from the train and bus station. Since March, the building has become the headquarters of Friends of Mariupol, an organization created to assist refugees from Ukraine who cross the Estonian border after an ordeal. They come from Russia because they were transferred to it, by force or voluntarily, after the area in which they lived was occupied by the invading troops. The last step before reaching EU territory is not easy. In Ivangorod, border guards examine photos or contacts and posts on social networks on their mobile phones. Most men have their bodies inspected for tattoos of nationalist symbols or even bruises caused by the use of firearms.
Some 250 Ukrainians cross into Narva every day, considerably fewer than a few weeks ago. Some go directly to the Friends of Mariupol headquarters, where they can spend up to three nights. “They usually arrive exhausted, with hardly any luggage or money; with a lost look,” says Yekaterina Romanova, a 22-year-old Russian volunteer. The charity, which is funded entirely by donations, helps refugees reach their destination in other EU countries, although some choose to return to unoccupied parts of Ukraine. Romanova recounts that a family from devastated Mariupol arrived in Narva after being deported to Vladivostok, in Russia’s far east, near North Korea.
Very few Ukrainians choose to stay in Narva. It does not seem the easiest city to integrate, nor the safest. A couple of weeks ago, Vladimir Putin cited the city in a speech in which he equated the offensive in Ukraine with the military campaigns of Peter the Great more than 300 years ago. The Russian president said that the tsar did not conquer Narva in 1704, but “regained it after defeating the Swedes.” However, the city was only under Russian control for 24 years, between 1558 and 1581. Estonia summoned the Russian ambassador to Tallinn for consultations following Putin’s remarks.
The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the gap between Estonia’s Russophone population (around 25%) and the rest of the country. “For three decades, the language and cultural identity of those with Russian as their mother tongue have been exploited for electoral gain,” Dmitri Teperik, director of the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn, says by email. “Since 2014 (the year of the Russian annexation of Crimea), these issues have come to be observed through the prism of security,” adds Teperik, who stresses that the Kremlin has partially justified its aggression against a neighboring country in the supposed oppression suffered by the inhabitants who speak Russian.
In early June, Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime Minister, expelled from her coalition government all ministers who were members of the Estonian Center Party—whose stronghold is Narva. “The new security situation in Europe does not allow me to continue working with a formation that is not capable of putting Estonia’s interests first,” Kallas argued. Liberal politics, which has been advocating in Brussels since the beginning of the war for even stronger sanctions and retaliation against Russia, is now trying to form a new coalition with the Social Democrats and with Isamaa, a conservative and nationalist party.
Earlier this month, a legislative amendment imposing compulsory education in Estonian up to the age of seven was rejected in the Riigikogu (Parliament). The Council of Europe issued a recommendation calling on Estonia to “ensure access to education in Russian at all educational levels” and to “improve the integration of minorities into society”. In Narva, the signs on the streets or on any public building are exclusively in Estonian. The tourist information signs, in the official language, in English, in German and, finally, in Russian. However, most restaurants don’t even have the menu translated into Estonian.
At one end of the promenade that runs along the Narva River, a dozen young people drink beer and consume methamphetamine at the stroke of midnight while the sound of techno Russian on a portable speaker. “Politicians in Tallinn want to prevent the next generations from speaking Russian in Narva,” says Ilia Yashkin, 36, the oldest of the group. “It is a fascist attitude. They treat us like second class citizens. And they intend to eradicate one of the most powerful languages in the world in the city to replace it with one that has a million speakers”, continues the thirtysomething, unemployed for years. When asked about the war, Yashkin shrugs and coldly replies: “I don’t give a damn what happens outside my city. The Estonian government should donate less money to Ukraine and invest more in Narva, which is where it is needed”.
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