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Narva: The EU's 'Russian' city

Ilya Koval Narva, Estonia
May 26, 2019

What are the concerns of people in the Estonian border city of Narva? And how much significance does the EU election really have in a "Russian city"?

Streets signs point to Narva and Ivangorod
Image: DW/I. Koval

The Estonian city of Narva is still cool in early May. A squally wind blows on the banks of the river of the same name. But Roman Valuiskih does not appear to be feeling the chill — he is wearing just a light khaki jacket. The 28-year-old works as a paramedic in Estonia, but his family is from Russia.

Just like in the rest of the EU, the people of Narva have been voting for their representatives in the European Parliament on Sunday.

Valuiskih, a Russian speaker, can also vote — after all, he has an Estonian passport: "I can't describe myself with just one word. Russia is my ethnic home, and Estonia is where I was born and where I live," he says. A few hundred meters (yards) behind him lies the Russian city of Ivangorod, connected to the EU by a bridge named "Friendship."

Russian-speaking city in the EU

Valuiskih is one of almost 58,000 inhabitants of Narva, the third-largest city in Estonia. The vast majority there, more than 80%, are ethnic Russians. Russian is their main language for normal conversation, even though Estonian is the official tongue.

 Roman Valuiskih in Narva
'Russia is my ethnic home, and Estonia is where I was born and where I live': Roman ValuiskihImage: DW/I. Koval

Almost all signs and notices are bilingual. Less than 4% of the population are ethnic Estonians. Altogether, 48% are Estonian citizens, 36% have a Russian passport and about 14% are so-called non-citizens who did not obtain Estonian citizenship following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Valuiskih is the only one in his family with an Estonian passport. His parents and his younger sister live in Narva and have Russian citizenship. Valuiskih received his Estonian passport as a student in the ninth grade, after having passed an exam to prove his knowledge of the country's constitution and the Estonian language.

"I figured I'd have a better chance with an Estonian passport. If you live in Estonia, it is a matter of respect to have Estonian citizenship. It was really not any question for me," he says.

Valuiskih's wife is an ethnic Estonian. At home, they speak Estonian, which is a good opportunity for Valuiskih to practice the language that he also needs at work, because in Narva, it is not that easy to find people with whom to speak it. The two speak their own respective languages with their two children so that they have both Russian and Estonian as their mother tongue.

Read more: Forward or backward? Decision time in the EU 

Map showing Estonia and Narva

Windows to Europe

On the other side of the river lies Ivangorod with about 10,000 inhabitants. It is a typical Russian provincial town with bad streets and rundown houses.

Among the few well-maintained amenities are the waterfront promenade and the steps leading to the fortress of Ivangorod. At the beginning of the decade, the EU provided Narva and Ivangorod with around €1.5 million ($1.68 million) for the redesign of their respective waterfront promenades as part of a cross-border cooperation project.

Estonia: Longing for Russia

Since then, the Narva fortress has had a pedestrian precinct that stretches 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), with benches, lanterns and fountains. In contrast, the promenade on the Russian side is just 119 meters long. The locals blame corruption but the Ivangorod authorities attribute it to a lack of funds.

Yevgeny Ivanovski, who lives in Ivangorod, has a great view of the other side of the river and the bridge to the European Union from his apartment in a dilapidated five-story building. The 25-year-old was born in the city. He has young daughter with his wife, an Estonian citizen.

Has he thought about leaving the town yet? "Of course, I'm looking for an opportunity to get out of here. Narva is one place I consider, and my wife would like to move there, but where would I work?" At any rate, he says, he does not want to stay in Ivangorod because the prospects of finding work there are bad. Ivanovski also laments the fact that the town has nothing to offer in the way of leisure-time activities; there is no cinema and no shopping center.

Read more: 'European' election sidelines 17.5 million non-EU residents 

But those can be found in the EU — just across the river. That is why Ivangorod's inhabitants travel to the EU — Narva — several times a week. There, they can also buy goods that can no longer be exported from the EU to Russia under a ban imposed by Moscow in response to the bloc's sanctions. Ivangorodians also go to Narva just to buy clothes, watch a movie or simply stroll through the city.

Those who live in Narva, on the other hand, cross the Friendship Bridge less often, perhaps once or twice a month. Gas is cheaper for them in Russia, for one thing: Per month, they are allowed one full tank and a jerrycan.  In Ivangorod, they also buy other goods that are cheaper than in Estonia, including household cleaners, grains, pasta and sugar. About 11,500 border crossings are recorded daily in Narva, according to the Estonian border authorities. Almost two-thirds are made by Russian citizens.

EU elections explained

But there are no special visa concessions for those living in the two cities on the Narva River. It is not possible for those in Narva to enter Russia without a Russian visa; those in Ivangorod cannot cross to the EU without a Schengen visa. But most people already have medium- and long-term visas. That is why people do not really get the sense that border rules are made in Brussels and Moscow. Sometimes, young Russians take a spontaneous stroll on the "banks of Europe" and Estonian youths visit friends and relatives on the Russian side.

"In Ivangorod, you can't do anything much — just be born and go to kindergarten and school," Ivanovski says sadly. If he doesn't manage to move, he says, he at least wants to send his daughter to a school on the Estonian side of the border. He describes the contrast between the two sides of the river in a nutshell: "When you cross the border, you immediately notice streets and sidewalks. There, everything is done for people."

Narva may still have its five-story, gray Soviet buildings, but the streets are clean and tidy. In Narva, but also in Ivangorod, almost anything that is newly built or restored has been done so with EU funding, and there are signs with the EU flag to highlight the fact.

Russian propaganda has little effect on the young people on both banks of the Narva River. They are more interested in regional issues than in international ones. In Narva, people get most of their information from local websites, including that of Estonian newspaper Postimees and the Baltic portal Delfi — both are also available in Russian. Russian television is watched mostly by older people.

The European Parliament elections also receive little notice in the region. Ivanovski from Ivangorod hadn't even heard of them. But even Valuiskih from Narva does not find the EU vote as interesting as the one that took place for Estonian Parliament in March. And the Estonian politicians who want to win seats in the European Parliament have obviously not been in any great hurry to win votes from people in Narva: Even about a month before the ballot boxes opened, not a single election poster could be seen in the streets of the city.

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