Russia to have backside of Narva River

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Liis Treimann

In the name of a boundary line more logical, Estonia intends to hand over a natural beach it possesses at Russia’s edge.

It’s a little-known fact that even without Tartu Peace Treaty, Estonia currently owns a couple of dozen hectares of sandy beach at the other side of Narva River. By scientists, the picturesque spot is called geographical anomaly. By officials, it is called a bothersome situation – something to get rid of by new border treaty.

Browsing the fresh-out-of-print Estonian base map in 2007, University of Tartu geographer Taavi Pae happened upon a surprise seldom seen in his profession.  

At the northernmost tip of Lake Peipsi, right across from Vasknarva Village, the temporary boundary line between Estonia and Russia has the former owning a ribbon of 50 hectares which school textbooks say are Russia’s. In reality, we are in 23rd year of a situation where Estonia has both banks of Narva River headwaters.

«We might even have Estonian cadastral unit over there, but probably there has been this quiet knowing in the government the whole time that the land will again be handed to Russia,» thinks Mr Pae.

Right after the discovery, accompanied by border guards, University of Tartu geographers organised an expedition to the other shore – in 2008. Probably, they are the last of the ordinary people ever to set foot there. Currently, neither the Estonian border guards nor their Russian colleagues let anybody over. The reason is simple: better be sure than sorry, as the border issues over there are muddy – putting it mildly.

As explained by hydrologist and Lake Peipsi researcher Ago Jaani, the strange bit of land has appeared by cooperation of humans and nature. Just some 90 years ago, Narva River headwaters were a shallow 2 kilometres wide and unnavigable area, always a cause of severe floods. To lower Lake Peipsi water level, in 1928 Estonia got busy building transverse dams of 660, 570 and 220 metres in Vasknarva shores, an a single water-directing dam of 1,420 metres at the opposite shore. «At the estimation of colleague and teacher Tiit Eipre, these might be the largest water works in Republic of Estonia ever,» described Mr Jaani.

The work went on till 1939 and swallowed 1.65 million kroons, but the effort immediately paid off. The river was pressed into a narrower bed, the floods were reduced and the entry into the lake became navigable. As by movements of Peipsi water bottom sand is carried from East to West, new land rapidly started to form behind 1st and 4th dams. As calculated by scientists, the beach grew by 12 metres a year, thus making up 50 hectares on the Eastern shore.

As, while the dams were being built, the Russian border ran 10 kilometres to the East, the grand project touched the neighbours not. However, with the temporary boundary line brought up to Narva River at regained independence, it was decided to go by Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic border as at 1946, by which the grand structure of forefathers plus the land created was left to Estonians.

In 2005, the delegations preparing the new border treaty decided this cannot continue. It was decided to draw the border-to-be closer to Estonia, to run along Lake Peipsi and not its shore. With this, the geographers aren’t happy. «When the border now will be otherwise, a part of the integrated water structure – one that may be called a technological monument erected by Estonians – goes into Russia’s hands. With the border drawn in middle of Narva River, getting on the long mole built by Estonians will become very difficult, if not impossible,» noted Mr Pae.

In addition to the mole, as the border changes enter into force, Estonia will hand over to Russia a total of 2.4 square kilometres of water and land in the area. According to Lauri Bambus, head of Estonian delegation to border treaty, the change was unavoidable as up to now it was impossible for Russian vessels sailing on Lake Peipsi to get to Narva River without violating Estonian state border.

«Both states were interested in getting to the Narva Rives. It is natural with state borders that both sides can move parallel to border without crossing the border,» explained Mr Bambus. He claimed Estonia did not stand to lose land because of this, as elsewhere extra areas are gained. From the start, the Agreement with Russia was that the total land and water area of both countries will remain as it is at the moment.

Vasknarva Cordon chief Illar Jõgi admitted the current order of things makes life harder for ship owners. According to border guards who talked to Postimees, they have up to now been forced to make artificial exceptions, allowing professional Russian fishermen to sail from Lake Peipsi to Narva River. For ordinary boat-owners, this isn’t possible without applying for permits or being accompanied by Russian border guard. It’s especially problematic in spring time spawning season when the waters to the Russian side of the mole teem with fish, luring leisure fishermen. Near the beach belonging to Estonia, however, all a Russian fisherman had to do to violate border was to have one foot in water.

«A couple of years ago, we had dozens of cases like that a year,» recalls Mr Jõgi. This also is the reason why Estonian border guards have decided to ban people from going to the mole towards Russia, and unto the strip behind it. Estonians may drive up to 200 metres along the Estonian beach on the right side bank of Narva River, and sail to 20 metres on Narva River waters.

According to Mr Jaani, Estonia would not lose much by letting Russia have the mole we built, but additional problems would surely be created. Slits in moles to collect sediments got filled up in 1980ies already, and now the border guards are saying Narva River headwaters are clogging up again. To clean up the moles and riverbed, lots of investments would be needed.

«For us, the place is important, but for Russia it is periphery. Even if Russian hydrologists were to support the problem, they have no money to share. Therefore, I can’t imagine we would get agreement by Russian side to cooperate with us, financially and technically,» admitted Mr Jaani.