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Baltic border towns look forward to reunion

Published on December 21, 2007

21st December 2007

Valka, Latvia/Valga, Estonia (dpa) – Of all the EU’s thousands of Eastern European communities, not one is looking forward to passport-free travel more than a small and divided town on the border of Estonia and Latvia.

Joining the Schengen common visa zone is the next step toward a closer community for the divided town of Valka in Latvia and Valga in Estonia, Valka’s Mayor Unda Ozolina told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA).

However, it won’t solve all the problems, the teacher-turned-mayor added: "It’s easier to remove barriers at our borders than to remove barriers in our minds."

Valka, with a population of over 7,000 people, and Valga, with a population of over 15,000, used to make up the town of Walk. It was given that name by German crusaders in the Middle Ages, and kept it through centuries of Russian imperial rule.

But in 1918 the Russian Empire collapsed, and nationalist forces in its Baltic provinces founded the states of Estonia and Latvia.

Walk, in the ill-defined border region between them, was claimed by both governments until 1920, when British Colonel Stephen George Tallents, frustrated by the two sides’ inability to agree, simply drew the border through the town.

Since then the border has come and gone. In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and Latvia, abolishing the two countries as independent states and bulldozing the checkpoints between them.

When the two states regained their independence in 1991, the border crossings went back up again, and now, almost 17 years on, young people in Valka and Valga cannot even imagine a life without border controls, Ozolina said.

At present, the Valga-Valka border line zigzags through the city streets, resembling a shape of a seagull – an image the towns took on as their logo with the slogan "One City, Two Countries."

Officially, residents can cross the border at three passport check points, scattered across the towns.

On Valka’s Raina street, however, there’s no check point. Green moss covers the wet pavement near a patched-up border fence, intended to prevent illegal border crossing. Marking the border, the Konnaoja stream (Frog Creek) runs underneath a barely-noticeable bridge.

A black-and-while metal road barrier stretches across the street and pavements in front of the fence. The Latvian side faces the back door of an Estonian supermarket. At the end of the bridge, a black-striped border pole reading "The Republic of Latvia" stands in the middle of the road.

Customs controls along the line disappeared when both countries joined the European Union in 2004. That same year, the original spear-tipped metal fence on Raina street was taken down and replaced with a simpler structure.

On December 21, the fence and the twin towns’ passport controls are set to vanish entirely as Estonia and Latvia, together with seven other new EU members, join the Schengen common visa space.

"We’ll wait and see what happens after we join Schengen," said Aija Priedite, the curator of Valka’s historical museum.

In recent years, the two towns have cooperated in areas of education and cultural exchange. But the cultural differences between the Baltic Latvians and the more Scandinavian Estonians remain – and the accession will not solve all the problems between them.

Even after Schengen entry, emergency vehicles still won’t be able to cross the border, Valga’s mayor Ivar Unt said. Instead, Valka’s residents might be taken to the Latvian town of Valmiera several kilometres away instead of to the nearby Valga hospital.

But in spite of the difficulties of providing services literally on the border, the two mayors plan to host a celebration welcoming the historic event for both countries.

As the border barriers swing open, officials from both sides of the border plan to hold a joint parade along the full, international length of Raina street – celebrating the moment when the three check points between the two towns became history.