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Estonia-Latvia borderlands merger makes Riigikogu splash

A Tale of Two Cities, Baltic contemporary version

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PHOTO: wikipedia.org

At the end of March, Latvia's Valka County duma chairman Vents Krauklis decided to do an experiment in Valga Hospital. Namely, he sent his wife across state border to give birth there.

PHOTO: Arvo Meeks / Valgamaalane

At that, the aim was not checking the quality of work by Estonian doctors. He was testing Latvia: will they manage to get the compensation in Latvia for the birth in Estonia, and how fast. In Valga Hospital, giving birth to daughter cost them €1,200. In Latvia, they expect health insurance fund to recompense half of that i.e. €600.

As admitted to Postimees by Mr Krauklis yesterday, he is yet to get his answer from the fund.

Today, within administrative reform of Estonia, Riigikogu will be deliberating a proposal which if successful would pave way for better life for Mr Krauklis and thousands of others both sides of the border. From constitutional affairs committee, idea has been tabled to restore ancient cross border local governments.

An engine for the idea is Igor Gräzin (Reform) who admits the idea may sound crazy but «when one takes some 15 minutes to think it over perhaps it’s not.»

At any rate, inhabitants of Valga and Valka would benefit. As admitted by Valga County Governor Margus Lepik (also Reform), the two towns do get along and manage their stuff, it is still rather difficult to move money across the border regarding healthcare, education or public transport.

The money issue

The very movements of money was what Mr Krauklis wanted to find out about, with the experiment involving his newborn daughter. For him, the cross-border-county seems a good idea though to make it works would perhaps be complicated. «But the region here would develop faster without the obstacles – that’s for sure,» he says.

To this agrees Peeter Ernits (Centre), also a Riigikogu constitutional committee member and one who voted yes. «Look at the situation in Valga and Valka – rather sad,» he notes. «I am not saying it is a bomb crater, but bad indeed as compared to neighbouring counties.»

In the twin cities, state border has made things difficult in various ways. County Governor Mr Lepik recalls how, while Mayor of Valga at the beginning of last decade, for quite a while they had to comply with strict long-distance requirements for the two-town bus line before they found a way to reregulate it. And the Valga County vocational school which also trains Latvians has gotten no financial support from Latvian government, says Mr Lepik.

Meanwhile, everyday life between the two towns is bustling. Some 500 Latvians commute to work in Valga every day, largely for the higher Estonian salaries’ sake. The movement in the other direction is over ten times smaller. Some thousand Latvians declare Valga as their place of residence though they actually dwell in Valka – this way, they gain better access to Estonian social system such as healthcare. Krauklis says this is to Valka’s damage as the town yearly misses half million euros from Latvian state budget. Therefore, he is in favour for a situation where in the twin city it would make no difference which side of the border people live.

Estonians prefer Riga

And so Riigikogu now stands faced with the idea. Peeter Järvelaid, a professor of legal history and comparative justice at Tallinn University, is favourably inclined to the proposal tabled: «When I was a child, Valga still had traffic going towards Petseri and Võru, now they say there are not enough passengers,» he says. «Makes one wonder, what to do with a border area in obvious decline for decades.»

And the future of which will be even more questionable when Rail Baltic will be from Tallinn via Pärnu to Riga – far, far away from Valga and Valka.

And on top of it all, Valga and its inhabitants feel like a wasteland forsaken by Tallinn and are rather looking towards Riga. As admitted By County Governor Mr Lepik: if faced with the option where to board a plane, he prefers Riga as many of his friends do. Substantiating that from Riga there are more direct flights and more often, and the tickets are cheaper there, to say nothing about Riga being 160 kilometres from Valga, but Tallinn 250 kilometres away. Mr Lepik adds hat for people in Valga area, Riga is more attractive than Tallinn regarding retail and entertainment.

The above as well as the historical cross-border Valga County at end of 18th century within Livonia are, in the opinion of Mr Gräzin, pointing to the Valga area in reality growing distant from Tallinn and North-Estonia. «The slogan about a New Nordic means nothing over there!» he declares.

Setting an European example

While constitutional committee chairman Kalle Laanet (Reform) deems the idea intellectually very interesting, he voted not for it. «We’d bite off more than we can chew,» he explains. «We’d need to get the administrative reform done in Estonia, and only then deal with cross-border things.»

Professor Järvelaid, however, is convinced cross-border local governments are vital for Europe. «Europe has enormous problems that borders do not correspond to composition of population and are not supportive of normal regional development,» he explains. And adds: «Brussels would get an excellent example of how to, elsewhere in Europe, solve the fossilised state borders in EU so as to make lives easier for people. At the moment, Estonia is the only country with political will to destroy its administrative structure come what may, creating something new. Meaning, it has made itself soft so to speak, to gain political consensus domestically.»

Meanwhile, Mr Gräzin thinks that should the idea come to nothing, the bottom edge of Estonia would definitely sink to a place he afterwards reworded as «dark, dirty and stinky». Reconsidering, for the Estonian printed version of Postimees he insisted the use of a location herewith better left untranslated.

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