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Russian Fears As Nervous Estonians Look To The West

Sunset on the Narva River is a vision of peace and tranquillity. Medieval castles loom high above both banks, while fishermen cast their lines into the fast flowing waters.

But as the relationship between Nato and Russia continues to deteriorate, this is also a front line between competing visions of the future in this part of the world.

The conflict in Ukraine, and Russian military action there, has made many people in the Baltic states nervous. They wonder what President Putin is planning next.

“You cannot help think about it when you hear things and watch things,” says university lecturer Zanna Razinkova, as we sit looking down on the river, and Russian territory on the opposite bank. “But I don’t think we worry much yet.”

Still, she says she’s pleased and re-assured by President Obama’s visit to Estonia. “We consider ourselves to be part of the West,” she says.

Emotional Ties

Zanna is herself an ethnic Russian, as are nearly 90% of the people who live in Narva.

For many local residents there are still emotional ties of language and culture to Moscow, and there are grievances with the Estonian government in Tallinn that need to be resolved.

But the vast majority clearly see their future on this side of the border, part of Nato and of the EU and its single market.

“Why would we go to Russia?” says Yevgenia, sitting on a bench outside her house with two friends.

“My children and grandchildren are here – the people who wanted to go back to Russia have left already.”

But events in Ukraine – and Crimea in particular – have brought back some uncomfortable memories.

Some officials here haven’t forgotten that way back in 1993, when Vladimir Putin was a rising political figure in St Petersburg, he encouraged a referendum in these parts on reuniting with Russia.

The referendum was actually approved before being struck down by Estonian courts.

All this in a country ruled from Moscow until 1991 as part of the Soviet Union.

Hence the symbolic visit to Estonia by the president of the United States of America, en route to the Nato summit in Wales.

In a speech in Tallinn before an assembled audience of Baltic dignitaries, Barack Obama reiterated the message they all wanted to hear: as Nato allies they will be protected from any potential aggression.

“The defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius,” the president said to loud applause, “is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London.”

“You lost your independence once before,” he added. “With Nato, you will never lose it again.”

Now comes a debate within Nato about what a more visible military presence should mean in practice.

President Obama spoke of more American military personnel training in and rotating through each of the Baltic states.

The alliance’s rapid reaction force will be strengthened, to make sure it can be in the right place at the right time with the right resources.

But that’s not quite the same as a permanent military presence here – something many Baltic leaders would like to see.

New Era

The argument against such a deployment is that it would break existing treaty commitments between Nato and Russia.

The counter argument is that Russia has broken those commitments already by its actions in Ukraine.

“I would argue that we are in a new era,” said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, at a press conference with Mr Obama.

“And when the previous conditions no longer hold, it is time to make a change.”

Food for thought for everyone, including the fishermen on the Narva River. They know that under still waters, treacherous currents run deep.