The cordon that Russians never left

20 years back, the 17,000 square metre border guard cordon in Pirita was a piece of real estate acquired by Russia from Estonia by ultimatum. The embassy ownership debate between the two countries is about to be finalised; this very year Russia may enter into rights to have its own way with the cordon.

PHOTO: Pm

A 20 years long Estonian-Russian tussle regarding embassy buildings this year wound up with a 99 years contract pursuant to which Estonia may rent land under its Moscow embassy for a token price while Russia, among other things, is able to use the one-time Soviet border guard cordon in Pirita, Tallinn.

Right next to Tallinn, there sits a Soviet-time border guard cordon never surrendered to Estonia by Russians till this very day i.e. during 20 years. Behind the weird story lies a decades-long diplomatic tug of war with Russia – one finally won this year by the Eastern neighbour.

«This is retreat. Retreat under Tallinn,» describes a 73 years old retired colonel Henn Karits. The colonel, once the deputy director-general for Estonian Border Guard, has reason enough to be bewildered. At the beginning of 1990ies, he held in his pocket an Estonian governmental decision whereby his team was tasked with possessing all the 40 plus USSR border guard cordons located in Estonia.

These included the cordon No 6: a 17,000 m2 fenced and firearms-guarded whale of a plot on Lauri Road, Pirita, about 600 metres from the beach as the crow flies. «A totally decent cordon building, officer’s residential building, mechanics base, workshops and garages, arms room, communication facilities, work-out gym, an eatery and kitchen,» recalls Ret. Col. Karits.

The complex was desirable, and not without reason. The Soviet border guard, governed by the KGB, had it built for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games regatta in Tallinn, so as to boost its ability to keep an eye on the foreign tourists arriving related to the event.  

As Col. Karits and his team went to take over the cordon in 1992, all looked nice. The cordon building was handed over, but the Russian officers refused to vacate the dwelling next to it. «They had already turned civilians, but were still here. We were told they were now on payroll of the Russian embassy,» recalls Col. Karits.

For a while, the armed Estonians guarding the cordon lived side by side with the former Soviet officers, as the entire complex was soon to be used by Estonian Defence Forces. A twist came in the fall of 1993. «The then Russian ambassador Aleksandr Trofimov appeared on the scene and said get out quick – otherwise there’d be problems with Moscow.»

Officially, Col. Karits then had recourse to foreign ministry, asking point blank: do we really leave such a large cordon in Tallinn to the Russian embassy, while we know they do have their buildings in the Old Town?

With a sour look, then defence minister Jüri Luik had to admit: overnight, the cordon had turned into a trade-off, as Russia had started to blackmail Estonia with leaving it without its Moscow embassy buildings. «I remember it was actually very serious, back then. The reason was, our embassy in Moscow with its extension could have been endangered,» says Col. Karits.

In a couple of hours, Estonians packed up and left. Thus, the Pirita cordon became the only one never retrieved by Estonian state from the Soviet Union of its legal successor.

Indeed, the debate over the cordon might remain just a curiosity in the history, if it were not a part of a land exchange resulting from blackmail, its end-game happening at this very moment in time. This year, on February 18th, foreign ministers Urmas Paet and Sergei Lavrov in Moscow signed embassies sites agreement. According to the document, Estonia gets the embassy building in Moscow, at Malyi Kislovski Pereulok 5 and the option to rent, for a token price, the land underneath the building for 99 years. 

Russia, it its turn, under rights of superficies, gets for 99 years the seven-address buildings complex at Pikk St, Tallinn Old Town, and the cordon in Pirita. As the rights of superficies is confirmed this fall or winter, in addition to using the land Russia will be entitled to erect houses. All in all, the Russian embassy in Tallinn is sprawling on nearly 20,000 square metres – the largest foreign representation located on Estonian state real estate.

According to foreign ministry vice chancellor Tõnis Saar, they tried to be guided by mutually equal profit. The process dragged into 20 years because of debated over the conditions of use of the lands and buildings. To back out of government’s decision, however, is now impossible. «As, by a government decision, we have handed the cordon into their use, it is very complicated now to change that and tell them to leave,» says Mr Saar.

For security expert Eerik-Niiles Kross, what is most astonishing is how Russia was allowed to get a bargain like this in the first place. Before the occupation, the Soviet Union only had one building at Pikk St; after Estonia’s regained independence, Russia has seven. Some of these facilities had legal owners with whom Estonia was forced to settle disputes in Russia’s favour.

«In my opinion, in 1994 Estonian state should have stood its ground. Regrettably, this was not the case,» analyses Mr Kross. «Of course, there were the weightier issues – to get rid of Russian troops, and to start building up the state.»

All told, it boils down to this: was it a fair deal or were the governments and foreign ministers, often changed in the 1990ieas, simply outmanoeuvred by the Russian bear. According to Mr Kross, Estonia probably had no choice and had to bring sacrifices. «After all, it was in Estonia’s interests to mitigate risks in Moscow: like the risk of the Russian government having a bad day and just taking away our embassy. Russians have never hesitated to act ugly.»

According to Trivimi Velliste, foreign minister in 1992–1994, negotiations with the Russians were very tough right from the start. Immediately, it was clear the Russian diplomats went for asking as much real estate as possible, so as to have something left even with some of it denied. The Russians always had this one argument: the buildings were needed to house diplomats in.

Thus, the houses between Pikk St and Lai St were given to the Russians as one entity, having already been connected during the interior ministry of the Soviet Republic of Estonia. «In hindsight, of course, we may debate over the excessive generosity by Estonia... We could have closed up these doors in between; but one always has to watch out for too much bigotry in such matters,» ponders Mr Velliste.

He will not deny that Estonia came under pressure. The again-independent state had no rights for its embassy building in Moscow. While it was used since before WW2, the Soviet Union never let foreign nations acquire any real estate. In the beginning of 1990ieas, that granted Russia the option to threaten to throw Estonia out of the Embassy as mere tenant.

«In return, Russia wanted all kinds of other real estate. We kept stressing that somewhere we’d have to draw the line. They had lots of demands which we refused,» assures Mr Velliste.  

One thing sifted out, in the end, was the very cordon in Pirita. «In quantity, it may have seemed imprudent to us – they do not have that many staff! But they had to live somewhere and the location makes for comfortable living,» he admits. Also, continues the former foreign minister, they weighed the possible security risks. Still, they detected no such risk that out services could not handle.

According to Eerik-Niiles Kross, applying for embassy real estate is a well-known trick, the real goal being to acquire extra space under diplomatic immunity. In such facilities, Estonian authorities have it difficult to detect anti-Estonian or intelligence activities.

As pointed out by Mr Kross, the forceful pressure by Russian embassy coincided with the departure from Estonia in 1994 of Russian troops, including the military signals intelligence GRU units. «One must assume the Russians felt the need to move certain functions elsewhere. I do not claim to know that the Russians are doing signals intelligence from Pikk St or someplace else, but I would be surprised if they did not,» says Mr Kross.

As Postimees went to take a look at the cordon, it found all windows barred in the two-storey residential building. In addition to spending the night, diplomats are also active in the building during the day. As to home life, one spotted the flowers on window sills, and a self-made barbecue place in the back.

At first glance, the fenced cordon looks overgrown in brush; the roads leading to it still display modest use. The cordon workshop has new doors installed; the main building has two satellite dishes on its roof.

Whether the cordon was a strategic choice or just a desire for the Pirita beauty, we will probably soon know as the Russians obtain the option to rebuild it as they see fit. Till that happens, we probably have as little reason to worry as does the US embassy employee who recently rented a house – right across from the Russians.

Fair deal?

Agreement entered by foreign ministers Urmas Paet and Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, on February 18th 2014

Russia gives Estonia:

•    A building at Malyi Kislovski Pereulok 5/8a in Moscow, total area 5,254 m2. The 2,243 m2 plot underneath will be rented to Estonia for 99 years for 1 rouble a year.

Estonia gives Russia:

Buildings and structures under rights of superficies:

•    Tallinn, Pikk St 19 and 21, Hobusepea St 3, Lai St 18, total area 3,410 m2

•    Tallinn, Pikk St 23 and 25, Hobusepea St 1, total area 880 m2

•    Tallinn, Mähe Road 9, Lauri Road 2, total area 2,127 m2

•    Tallinn, Lauri Road 4, total area 128 m2 for 99 years at right of superficies fee €1 a year:

•    Tallinn, Pikk St 19 and 21, Hobusepea St 3, Lai St 18, area 1,571 m2

•    Tallinn, Pikk St 23 and 25, Hobusepea St 1, area 272 m2

•    Tallinn, Mähe Road 9, Lauri Road 2, area 12,839 m2

•    Tallinn, Lauri Road 4, area 4,953 m2

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