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The Story of the Negotiations on the Estonian-Russian Border Treaty

Kadri Liik

The Story of the Negotiations on the Estonian-Russian Border Treaty

What happens behind the closed doors of negotiating rooms? Diplomaatia recounts the 13-year-long saga of the Estonian-Russian border treaty in order to understand what it is like to negotiate with the Russians.

By The first meeting of the Estonian and Russian national negotiating delegations in April 1992 marks the beginning of the negotiations on the Estonian-Russian border treaty. Now we know that it took a little more than 13 years to sign the treaty. It is most likely that some years will pass before the border will be completely ready because the treaty will have to be ratified, letters of ratification exchanged, demarcation documents certified and the border itself will have to be built. Anyway, most of the work is done. After the ceremony of the signing of the treaty in Moscow on May 18, Diplomaatia decided that it was time to find out the inside story of the longest negotiations in the history of Estonian diplomacy. Fifteen people, who represented the Estonian side during the negotiations, were interviewed for this article, but most of them wished to remain anonymous because active diplomats usually do not comment on these kinds of issues. However, they were willing to speak in private about their experiences and as it turned out, it was high time to do so because new memories were replacing old ones and some details had been already forgotten. Some interviewees had to go through old files to clarify some facts – they could not rely on their memory anymore.

In order to start from the beginning, we should first answer the following questions: Could it have been done differently? Would it have been possible that Setumaa were given back to Estonia? Could there have been a reference to the Tartu Peace Treaty in the preamble of the new treaty?

Looking back at Russia’s political dynamics, some of our diplomats speculate that if Estonia had been more flexible in the beginning, that is, in 1991-1992, then something might have been accomplished. At the time, all the like-mindedness of the perestroika period had not yet disappeared and the border had not been marked. The psychological impact of the latter fact should not be underestimated. But Estonia demanded nothing less than the reinstatement of the border as stipulated in the Tartu Peace Treaty, which is why the above favourable circumstances were not taken advantage of and the window of opportunity closed quickly. Russia underwent a change after the dismissal of Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar at the end of 1992 and Moscow began unilaterally to mark the border in the summer of 1994.

But this is all hindsight knowledge. First, there was no flexibility to be found in Estonia in 1992. People had idealistic expectations and this fact was reflected in the composition of both the parliament and the government. Second, there was one single absolute priority – to achieve the withdrawal of Russian troops. We did not need any clairvoyant powers to understand that the future of Estonia – whether we would become what we are today or be like Georgia and Moldova – depended on it. “We felt that if we concentrated on several issues at the international level, it would leave the impression that our relations with Russia were in total chaos. The West would not have been able to put pressure on Russia to solve the most important issue and everything would have been in a shambles,” recalled one of the negotiators. “We wanted the West’s pressure to focus like a laser beam on the problem of troop withdrawal because this was crucial to our existence as a nation.”

The issue of troop withdrawal – one of the four main topics of discussion during the Estonian-Russian negotiations together with social-humanitarian questions, trade relations and the border – was by far the most important one. The team that conducted the negotiations on the border had some success in drawing the maritime border because international conventions set out the respective criteria quite unambiguously. As regards the land border, the period from 1992 to 1994 was spent mainly on methodological and other preparatory work, which was mostly academic: it was clear that the positions of Estonia and Russia were so different that it was impossible to achieve anything at all.

Moreover, not only did the positions differ – which is normal in any negotiations – but the two sides did not treat the negotiations as such in the same way. “Russia saw the negotiations as an attempt to break away from Russia, which allowed Russia as the ‘motherland’ to impose conditions on the breakaway region,” said one negotiator. “The Estonian side had adopted a diametrically opposite position – we have been independent since 1918 and in the meantime you have created a mess here, so please clean it up and do it as quickly as possible!”

Until the end of the negotiations, this fundamental difference of opinion did not disappear. This made it even harder to talk to the Russians than it was to be expected on the basis of Moscow-style diplomatic practice.

“We were a small country and the Russians believed or maybe even hoped that we would not last for long,” said one Estonian diplomat. “They adopted a very condescending attitude. On one occasion, the Legal Department of the Estonian Foreign Ministry tried to make the treaties a little more compact, changing the order of the articles and adding some ideas to one or another article. [...] When we proudly presented our version to them, one of them said contemptuously that he would like to see the lawyers who managed to make such a mess of the treaties. I was momentarily startled, but then I realised that this was their tactic – to be arrogant and superior.”

The same arrogance was applied in all areas and the arguments of the other side were never even considered. “For the Russians, there are two kinds of information – the information that they know and use, and the information that is useless. There is no third option.” When the Estonian delegation referred to good practice or to an international norm, one of the Russians answered: “Don’t bother me with these old wives’ tales.” It was always the same answer. Another time, when the Estonians pointed to an opinion by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, a man who was well known in Moscow and whose opinion was held in high regard, they received the following answer: “I don’t know any Stoels and I don’t want to know!” This answer was especially funny for speakers of Russian because “stul” means “chair” in Russian: “I don’t know any chairs and I don’t want to know!”

However, at receptions that were organised after negotiation sessions, a Russian – usually an expert – would often approach an Estonian and confess that they did know what was written in international conventions and that he was embarrassed to bring such nonsense to the negotiating table, but what could he do – these were Svirin’s orders. The Russian delegation was a rigidly hierarchical body, while the Estonians worked as a team, the members of which were, in essence, equal.

Overall, Estonian diplomats remember this period as a time of hard work: delegations, comprised of several dozens of people, travelled to Moscow every month and equally big delegations came to Estonia. Negotiations were stressful. Sometimes it seemed that an agreement had been reached by late evening, but the Russians usually said the next morning that they had changed their mind and then the negotiations started again from the beginning.

Molotovian diplomacy Svirin-style

As we know the norms and traditions of Russian diplomacy, there is nothing strange in any of this. The Russians do not negotiate like the Western countries do. A typical Western negotiator is also a mediator: a negotiator makes proposals to the opposite side, but also to one’s bosses, suggesting possible compromises. Russian negotiators act this way probably only when they negotiate with the USA, where Russia has major strategic interests. As a rule, a Russian negotiator sticks rigidly to the original claim and just keeps on speaking because a negotiator has no authority and can take no initiative to change the approach or to suggest any amendments.

Since the Stalin period, the Russians have not treated diplomatic negotiations as being a method for problem solving; they rather see negotiations as an opportunity to find out the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. Russian negotiators make a political report about these strengths and weaknesses to their leaders who then decide how to solve the problem (if they are interested in solving it at all). “The Russians thought that our problem was so insignificant that they didn’t even bother to report the results of the negotiations to Yeltsin, so that the information never left the walls of the Russian Foreign Ministry,” recalled one Estonian diplomat. “Only when Clinton had forced Yeltsin to meet with Lennart Meri, did Yeltsin realise what our problem was – that we considered the pensioners of Russian armed forces in Estonia to be a security risk. I don’t know whether he shared that view or not, but it was clear that he only found out about the problem at that meeting.”

Moreover, while Western negotiators put forward complicated, but nevertheless logical sets of arguments, the Russians have no problem presenting completely senseless and contradictory statements at the same time. Insofar as the Russians wanted to gain the respect of the international community, the easiest solution would have been the withdrawal of the one thousand soldiers who had no strategic importance. But the Russians see things differently: there is nothing wrong with simultaneously wanting Russian forces to stay in Estonia, being a player of international standing, getting money for the withdrawal of the troops and making some further demands.

Vasili Svirin, head of the Russian delegation, was almost an ideal person to lead the negotiations. “I don’t want to offend him, but there was something Molotovian in him,” said one Estonian negotiator. “He could sit there for hours and endlessly repeat the same thing, no matter how stupid it sounded. He knew how to disrupt the negotiations with the most incredible unconstructive nonsense.” For example, when Estonia ratified the Aliens Act, Svirin came to the negotiations and read out a ranting statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which had nothing to do with the negotiations. “If they wanted to protest, an official protest should have been presented by their Ambassador to our Foreign Ministry. He didn’t have instructions to cancel the negotiations either – he just took out a paper and read it out loud. They used these kinds of tricks often. However, his conduct was always formally polite. Not friendly, but polite.”

When Svirin retired, he was replaced by Ludvig Chizov. The Estonian diplomats characterise him as being more civilised, but at the same time more emotional. Having spent his entire career in Japan, he would sometimes say: “Does the honourable Japanese side think that”¦,” but no one took offence. During Chizov’s time, it seemed for a moment that the negotiations were getting somewhere and that a solution might be reached. But when Chizov’s bosses made it clear to him that Moscow did not really want the negotiations to advance, it was back to “business as usual”.

The situation “on the ground”

But all this happened later. Let us return to 1994, when Russia made a move that deserves a place of honour among other Russian/Soviet-style diplomatic feats: having realised that the negotiations were not bringing the desired results, they decided to change the situation “on the ground”. This sort of behaviour deviates from the generally accepted norms in the West, but the Russians often do not expect polite negotiations to yield any results. If possible, they establish themselves first and speak later. A classic example of this kind of behaviour was their venture in Kosovo in 1999. The Russians wanted to have their own sector for peacekeeping, but the Americans refused, saying that the Russian forces should report to the Americans and serve where they were needed. After that the Russians flew one of their units stationed in Bosnia to Pristina Airport in Kosovo and from then onwards military planners could not escape the fact that the Russians were there. The only way to avoid their arrival would have been to start a war with them, which was not an option.

In the summer of 1994, the Estonians had a chance to experience how the situation “on the ground” is changed, when Yeltsin signed an order on June 21, instructing the Russian side to unilaterally mark the Russian-Estonian border along the line where it had been on August 24, 1991, which was the day when Russia recognised Estonia’s independence. “They knew that it would be easier for them to conduct negotiations, if the border had already been marked by them. This would create a new situation different from the one before, where the negotiations concerned not only legal aspects, but also the physical location of the border,” said one interviewee.

And that is why when the Russian forces left Estonia in August, after having signed – under international pressure – the withdrawal agreement in July, they crossed the border that had already been marked unilaterally by the Russian side. As for the negotiations, the July agreements represented the apotheosis of all things desired, so that no talks were held for some time.

Land for peace

It was Prime Minister Andres Tarand who gave hope for a new beginning. He made a statement in Helsinki on December 16, 1994, saying something that everybody had already started to accept deep down – that Estonia was prepared to make concessions to Russia by reducing its territorial demands, that the Tartu Peace Treaty did not have to be the only document determining the border and that the border could be regulated by other agreements. However, Estonia wanted Russia to recognise the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty and to refer to this fact in the preamble of the border treaty. For this reason, Estonia’s key negotiating phrase for the following two years was the same as the one used in the Middle East peace process – “land for peace”, that is, we will give you land in exchange for peace. Fortunately, this phrase had a different and significantly less bloody meaning here than on the shores of the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea.

After browsing through old newspapers, it becomes clear that Tarand’s statement was not unexpected; it had been in the making for some time. Quoting the Prime Minister, government officials had confirmed even before December 16 that “Estonia is prepared to take serious steps to solve the border issue quickly”. Some believe that when Tarand was in Helsinki, those words slipped out of his mouth almost by accident. According to Tarand, that was not the case: “I did it on purpose; I was thinking that Finland is a place from where this message would quickly reach the ears of the Russians.”

This hope was, in a way, naive. The news certainly reached the Russians, but it took a long time for them to understand the message. Even today, one meets politicians, journalists and foreign policy experts in Moscow who insist that Estonia harbours territorial claims on Russia. And they are very surprised when they learn that these claims have been off the agenda for ten years or so. In 1994, however, Russian diplomats often visited their Estonian colleagues to find out what had been said and how to interpret those statements.

“Their system does not simply allow them to accept statements that suddenly change the dynamics of negotiations. Their past experience has shown them that you have to stick to the one and the same thing, and only when you have reached the end of the line, when you are almost on the brink of war, then you can change something or back down,” said one Estonian negotiator. “The Western countries, including Estonia, use a different tactic – they want to reach a reasonable compromise. In this situation, we had to ask ourselves whether a realistic agreement was better than keeping an abstract option open and if we did that, could we ever have a better agreement. The answer was ‘No’ – Setumaa will not be returned to us in the next 100 years, but an open border could leave us out of the EU and NATO.”

Tarand’s statement and the development of the land-for-peace position shook the negotiations out of a temporary lethargy. As the “big” or bilateral negotiations had come to an end with the signing of the July treaties, Estonia and Russia established new delegations specially for the border negotiations. Estonia’s delegation, led by Raul Mälk, received its mandate from the government on January 9, 1996, whereas President Yeltsin had formed the Russian delegation, led by Svirin, a little earlier – in December, 1995. However, the delegations started to hold meetings already in the summer of 1995, as they still had negotiating mandates on the basis of the previous bilateral talks.

Even though the Estonian side had given up its demands concerning the Tartu Peace Treaty, there was still some hope left that in addition to technical issues, it would be possible to make adjustments to the border by way of including some Estonian-speaking villages in the Estonian territory.

One Estonian diplomat described the first meeting in the summer of 1995 as follows: “When we laid out the map with our proposed border that incorporated a couple of villages into our territory, I remember the Russians jumped out of their seats and the negotiations almost ended, right then and there.” He added: “Back then, they already followed the principle that Putin formulated recently – you’ll get the ears of a dead donkey instead of any land.”

“The idea was that what we’ve got is ours and everything else is negotiable,” said another diplomat. “They never put forward any reasonable compromises during the negotiations. Instead they came up with suggestions that pushed the border deep into our territory. And then they would negotiate, fight over every piece of land and pressurise us until it was too embarrassing at the international level.”

Anyway, it became immediately clear that Russia would not give up even a single – although entirely insignificant – piece of land, if there was anyone living on it, despite the fact that it would have been practical to do so. Let us take, for example, the swamp island located near the village of Kulje. There were three old ladies living on the island and they regularly crossed the border illegally to buy bread in Värska, Estonia, because there were no roads connecting the island with Russia. However, the suggestion to hand the swamp island over to Estonia in exchange for another piece of land belonging to Estonia almost rendered the Russian side speechless. “What?! Don’t you believe that the Russian Federation can provide bread for three ladies?” they shouted angrily and that was it. Even so, the Russian Federation has not done anything to solve the problem – the poor old ladies still shop in Värska.

They are not like us

The working styles of the two delegations were completely different. The Estonian delegation was small and it had a direct line to the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. When the situation became critical and the question arose whether to continue or to end the negotiations, then the Estonian delegation could always call the Prime Minister. The Russian delegation could not call Yeltsin; they operated on the basis of written instructions, which they were not able to change. “When listening to the current debates in Estonia, it seems that it would have been useful, if we had had some written instructions as well,” chuckled some of our diplomats.

Sometimes it was frustrating that the Russians had an institute for solving every problem: if we could not decide whether we were talking about a dam, a bridge or a waterway, they immediately turned to a respective institute that dealt with construction engineering, hydrogeology or something else. There was a heated argument over the Kulje Dam, which the Estonians called a bridge and the Russians a dam. If it were a bridge, the border should have been marked along the centre line of the bridge, while international law says nothing about dams. In the end, the Russians produced a document from an institute in St Petersburg. It had been signed by various professors who confirmed that the facility was, indeed, a dam because the embankment ratio was something to something. Eventually it was decided that three quarters of the dam belonged to Russia and one quarter to Estonia and the border was drawn along a culvert.

In terms of technology, the Estonians significantly outperformed the Russians. The Russians had ordinary topographic maps and they used pens to draw the border; the Estonians worked with digital maps. There was one occasion when the two sides agreed that one of the border’s landmarks would be the spire of the Vasknarva Church. Then one of the Russians stated that the church had three spires. The negotiators glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders, but Aare Evisalu from the Estonian Border Guard smiled cunningly and left the room. He returned shortly afterwards with a laptop, which showed the contours of the church that seemed to have appeared in front of the negotiators as if by magic. It was clear that the church had one main spire and two smaller spires. “This was like voodoo for the Russians.”

Now, let us be generous and admit that the reason why the texts almost magically changed in the hands of Russians could have been their technological inferiority. “We handed over a part of the border description that had a certain formulation and they returned it in a new formulation. A seven-line paragraph had lost six lines and the following paragraph was so neatly tied to the preceding one that it seemed like 1,700 metres of land hadn’t disappeared. The description was vague and incomplete,” recalled one member of the Estonian delegation. “We brought out the original and said: ‘Friends, look here!’ They apologised and said that a secretary had made a mistake...”

The living standards of the diplomats also differed greatly. The Russians wanted the negotiations to be held in Estonia and to stay here as long as possible because this way they could receive travel allowances. “At receptions, they complained that they had small salaries and that the salaries were not being paid out,” recalled one of the Estonians. “One of the negotiators from the Russian Foreign Ministry renovated apartments to earn more money. When the negotiations began to drag on, he would confess that he would like to finish the negotiating round quickly because he had to go to do some work on the side. Then they would ask us whether we had fixed salaries and whether we really got paid on the same day every month. For them, this was a little surprising. They looked at us in awe, thinking this is what a real state should do.”

Even Vasili Svirin had a human side: he once finished negotiations earlier, so that he could go to his cottage and cut some hay for his mother’s goat. The Estonians knew Svirin’s mother, cottage and goat very well, asked questions about them and Svirin answered gladly. However, this human softness disappeared behind the negotiating table.

“It seems that the Finns think that it is best to negotiate with the Russians while drinking vodka and being in sauna,” said one Estonian diplomat. “These activities are, indeed, almost compulsory when negotiating with the Russians, but this does not mean that Russian negotiators will become softer. Their tongues might become a little looser, but their negotiating approach will not change. Russia is a very centralised nation; no one will risk his position by softening the approach, with or without sauna.”

An important line drawn on a lake

The Estonians also had a secret mission during the negotiations, which was not widely publicised. It all started with first paragraph of §122 of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia: “The land boundary of Estonia is determined by the Tartu Peace Treaty of 2 February 1920 and by other international boundary agreements.”

But what does “other international agreements” mean? Radical nationalists claim that this means the border treaty with Latvia.

Even the Constitutional Assembly realised that problems could arise with this unusual paragraph – as a rule, state borders are not defined in constitutions! – which is why the Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, Tõnis Anton, insisted that the Assembly’s interpretation should be recorded in the minutes of the meetings: “The Assembly has decided that according to its interpretation, the first paragraph of §124 (§122 of the current Constitution – ed.) should not hinder any appropriate commission from holding negotiations with Russia in order to change the border of the Tartu Peace Treaty of 2 February 1920.”

So it seemed that everything was alright. Yet in 1996 the Foreign Ministry decided that it was necessary to get a new opinion from the Chancellor of Justice. In the opinion of the then Chancellor of Justice, Juhan Truuväli, other treaties were not excluded, but proceeding from the wording of the paragraph, which reads “and other” not “or other”, he suggested that the border should be drawn so that there would be at least one reference point where the new border and the border of the Tartu Peace Treaty would coincide.

It was impossible to find such a point on land because the new border ran along a different route, but it might have been found on Lake Peipsi, which also formed a part of the land border. The problem was that it was difficult to determine the exact configuration of the border of the Tartu Peace Treaty on the lake: the coordinates of the line on the lake had been re-calculated several times and the new ones did not correspond to those on the map of Lake Peipsi from the Tsarist period.

Until 1932, Estonia had used the old, Tsarist coordinate system and then adopted the European system. The USSR did the same. However, the new border was not verified and due to a calculation error by the Russians, a zone of 140 meters was created on the lake that both sides claimed was theirs. In January 1939, the Estonian side made a proposal to the Russians to review the situation and the Russians admitted their error. But then came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the border issue was forgotten. In 1943, the USSR created its own coordinate system in order to make it more difficult for the Allies and the Germans to link different maps together. Russia uses the same system today and the error made in 1932 has become even more significant. But the narrow Lake Lämmi, stretching from north to south, is not affected by the error; nothing has changed there. The Estonian negotiators set themselves the following goal: they wanted to restore a border section on Lake Lämmi in accordance with the Tartu Peace Treaty. This goal had to be kept hidden from the Russian side because if they had known that it was all about the Tartu Peace Treaty, they would not have agreed to anything.

“We told them all kinds of stories to explain our demands,” chuckled one Estonian diplomat. The Russians were very suspicious, but we got what we wanted. We now have not only one coordinate point, but two border sections and three border junctures that coincide with the border of the Tartu Peace Treaty: coordinate points 9, 10 and 11 of the border of the Tartu Peace Treaty correspond to the points 13, 14, and 15 of the new treaty – in total 16.8 kilometres between Piirissaare and Mehikoorma.

By the way, some Estonian diplomats think that Svirin understood very well what was going on, but did not say a word. Who knows?!

The legendary meeting in Petrozavodsk

Estonia’s demands to recognise the Tartu Peace Treaty in the preamble of the new treaty got a cold reception from the Russians. By the autumn of 1996, the negotiations had reached a deadlock like in the pre-Tarand period: both sides only reiterated their views from one round of negotiations to another. The land-for-peace deal collapsed because the Russian side took the land, but refused to conclude peace with Estonia.

The Estonians had nothing left to do but undergo a period of reflection and determine what we really wanted. The year 1996 was almost over; NATO and the EU were to make their accession decisions in 1997. It was clear that we would not be able to join NATO in the nearest future, but it seemed that we still might have a chance with the EU. For this reason, we had to have no border conflicts or, at least, we had to demonstrate that Estonia had done everything in its power and that it was Russia that deliberately obstructed the negotiations. So, in the autumn of 1996 the Estonian Government authorised the acting head of the Estonian delegation, Kalev Stoicescu, to relinquish the demand that the Tartu Peace Treaty must be referred to in the new treaty and to reach an agreement on the so-called technical border agreement without a political preamble.

Subsequently, rumours have been spreading that it was Foreign Minister Siim Kallas who gave up the demand that the Tartu Peace Treaty must be mentioned and who initialled the new border treaty at a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Yevgeny Primakov, in Petrozavodsk. This is a myth: nothing was initialled by Kallas in Petrozavodsk. The technical border treaty had been signed ten days earlier, on October 25, by Kalev Stoicescu and by the acting head of the Russian delegation, Sergey Lazarev.

The Petrozavodsk meeting was a memorable event for many other reasons as well. There was a shabby old car – a Volga – the trunk of which sprang open on the road and the briefcase with all the Estonian border documentation almost fell into a puddle somewhere in Karelia. There was Primakov who did not want to hear anything about the border treaty, but started talking about the rights of Russian compatriots as soon as he entered the room. Kaarel Tarand, a journalist who accompanied the Estonian delegation, listened involuntarily to the confidential negotiations because, for some unknown reason, the Russians broadcasted the discussions throughout the entire building that had been chosen for the meeting. Later, Tarand wrote in an article: “Primakov sprawled in a chair like a fat sausage.” This earned him a Russian visa ban for some time. The diplomats who did not accompany the Estonian Foreign Minister to Strasbourg, but flew back to Tallinn in an Enimex plane have most vivid memories of landing in Tallinn. The plane bounced up and down the runway several times and when it was clear that it could not stop, it took off to try again. This made the passengers wonder how the death of half of the high-ranking officials of the Foreign Ministry would influence the conclusion of the border negotiations.

But, as was already mentioned, nothing was initialled in Petrozavodsk. The initialling of the technical treaty had been done ten days earlier, but even today different states and people have contrasting views on the status of the document. For the Estonian side, the initialling meant that the two parties approved the agreed-upon text that had been negotiated by the two delegations. Estonian diplomatic practice does not allow for any other lower-level procedure than initialling. So, from the Estonian point of view, the main text of the border treaty was initialled on October 25, 1996. The treaty’s annexes, the description of the border and the maps still had to be approved.

The Russians see things differently. For them, an initialling is a more formal procedure, which is why they referred to the document as a draft that had been approved by the delegations. Some Russian diplomats have claimed that the event that had taken place had been less important than an initialling. Accordingly, the Russians were dumbfounded, when the Estonians stated that due to the fact that the text had been initialled, the treaty could be signed at the OSCE Summit in Lisbon.

Maps in hand to Lisbon

“We’re taking a pen with us to Lisbon” – this was the mantra of the Estonian leaders, which they often repeated in the press. Suddenly, it turned out that a significant international pressure group was supporting Estonia. Several countries made inquiries in Moscow, asking, indeed, why not sign the treaty? In the end, Indrek Tarand, Secretary General of the Estonian Foreign Ministry, bought a nice cardboard tube for the maps and Riivo Sinijärv, who was – after Siim Kallas and before Toomas Hendrik Ilves – Foreign Minister for a short period, went to Lisbon with the maps. “Of course, there was no talk of signing anything,” said Sinijärv, “but some people came and asked why I had the maps with me. So I told them.”

It is not customary to sign bilateral agreements at international meetings. And it is definitely not usual to take your maps with you and to show up without the prior consent of the other party. But the Estonians did not care about that: “Lisbon was part of our strategy. We wanted to provoke the Western countries into admitting – which they did – that it was Russia’s fault and that Estonia had done everything in its power to get the border treaty signed,” admitted one Estonian negotiator. “We overdid it deliberately. Indeed, it is not standard operating procedure to take your treaties with you and to insist on signing them right away, but we did it on purpose to show our readiness.”

By way of this improvised operation, Estonia managed to achieve its goal: the West realised that Estonia had done everything it could, that the text of the treaty had been finalised and that Russia could not be forced to sign the treaty against its will. In July next year, the European Commission suggested that accession negotiations should be started with Estonia, although there was still no border treaty.

We could even say, half jokingly, that half of Eastern Europe acceded to the EU and NATO owing to the signatures of Stoicescu and Lazarev because these signatures demonstrated that Estonia could, in fact, reach an agreement with Russia. As a result, Estonia was invited to begin accession talks with the EU. In a different context, such an invitation would have been extended only to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus – to states which had a status and psychological image different from ours. In principle, NATO and EU enlargement could have been restricted to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary and then the organisations could have suffered from enlargement fatigue or hangover. But Estonia managed to get a foot in the door, disproving such claims. And when Estonia was on its way towards NATO and the EU, it became clear that Latvia and Lithuania had to be invited as well. And the same applied to Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.

The Russians definitely did not want any of this, which is why there is not a single Estonian diplomat who can explain why the Russians initialled the treaty in the first place. Was it because they did not consider it a “real” initialling? Did they feel international pressure and did they want to divert the “blame” on Estonia, thinking that the signature of a deputy leader of the delegation was insignificant? Maybe they thought that the recognition of the Tartu Peace Treaty was so important in Estonian domestic politics that we would not have been able to suggest a proper signing of the treaty without mentioning it in the text. Or maybe they were absolutely convinced that without a properly signed border treaty, NATO and the EU would not ask us to become member states.

The Estonians believe that the Russians took this latter requirement very seriously, that they counted on it one hundred percent and that they were very disappointed when things turned out differently. “The Russians made the mistake of not hiding their intention to obstruct our accession and in a situation like that, the Western nations could not let themselves be ridiculed any more,” said one Estonian diplomat.

He added: “The problem with the Russians is that they publicly use a brutal approach, which is uncustomary in the West. A good example is Ukraine, where the Western countries were actually prepared to tacitly recognise Russia’s special interests there, but Putin acted so rudely – with only one thing on his mind – that the Western countries were forced to take a stand and to be harsher than they otherwise would have been. Another long-term mistake by the Russians is that they underestimate the West. The Russians do not understand that Western diplomats are not soft, although they wear quality suits, they have soft hands and they drink champagne. They can be very severe, if they feel that someone is fooling with them.”

Nevertheless, it took two more years before Russia finally initialled the treaty, but it did not matter anymore: the political process of integration with the West had begun; the absence of a border treaty had not stopped anything; everything in the treaty and the annexes was planned to the last detail. Let us be honest: if the agreements had been signed in the original wording in 1996, the demarcation commission would later have had to do a lot of potentially politically explosive work. For partners who do not exactly trust each other, it is better to put everything in writing.

Why the Russians agreed to initial the documents in March 1999 is also a mystery because they could have dragged things out even further. Maybe they were scared that a change in the Estonian leadership might make the situation more complicated: indeed, in 1992, when Jüri Luik became the head of the Estonian delegation, he redrafted the entire text of the treaty. One Estonian diplomat, however, believes that the reasons were biological: the first leader of the Russian delegation had already retired, the second leader was going to retire and the experts were getting older, so that the expertise on the issues concerning the Estonian border was simply about to disappear.

May 18, 2005

On the other hand, it is perfectly clear why the Russians agreed to sign the treaty in 2005: they had nothing to gain – and there was still something left to lose – by not signing it. In addition, Russia’s attitude towards borders has somewhat changed in this era of Putin and international terrorism: today it is important even for Russia to control cross-border movement of people, but it used to be psychologically easier for the Russians to consider the borders to be provisional in order to make the collapse of the USSR seem less final.

“Having completed a round of negotiations, I once said that we were creating a border that would stand between Estonia and Russia forevermore,” recalled one Estonian negotiator. “All of a sudden, I noticed that all the Russians began to look very anxious. Had they never thought of their work in this way or did they think that the border would be temporary?”

Still, the Estonians wanted to define the border for all times to come, so that there will never have to be any other bilateral negotiations that go on for such a long time for the simple reason that there is no other topic as significant as this. Multilateral negotiations, however, are something different – they sometimes last for years and even for decades.

The Estonians have gained many valuable experiences and vivid memories. “Throughout my subsequent career when at the end of a long day I would like to finish all the discussions by finalising a document just to get rid of it, I suddenly remember Svirin with whom we could never do so,” said one Estonian ironically. “Every word suggested by the Russians had to be examined closely and then re-examined to decode all the hidden meanings.”

And the Estonian negotiators will probably never forget all the local place names: “Sometimes when I drive around in the south-eastern part of Estonia and notice one signpost or another, Svirin’s face suddenly pops into my mind.”

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