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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pskov Small Talk Reveals Old Rifts

PSKOV, Central Russia -- Away from the main throng of the cocktail party, two men in dark suits stood holding glasses of champagne and nervously stroking the stems of the glasses.


A moment before they had taken turns cutting a blue, black and white ribbon with silver scissors, officially opening Pskov's first Estonian consulate; now, free for a moment from formalities, they were struggling to make small talk about their two countries.


Viktor Zvonkov, the vice governor of Russia's Pskov Oblast, praised Estonia for opening a diplomatic mission in his regional capital.


"Too many of our disagreements are caused by misinformation," said Zvonkov, whose thick brown hair made him look much younger than his 55 years.


His Estonian counterpart, a chancellor of the Estonian foreign ministry named Indrek Tarand, 30, nodded in agreement.


In silence the two sipped their champagne, and then the talk lumbered awkwardly on, carried heroically by Zvonkov, who managed to remember the railroad.


"That's something we could work on together," Zvonkov suggested brightly.


Tarand perked up. "Yes, well, our Estonian railroad has to go somewhere to be useful!" he said, and the two men, and the Russian and Estonian underlings hovering at their elbows, laughed, relieved that someone had finally made a joke.


This is how they meet these days: Great Russia, the economic basketcase and home of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and tiny, vulnerable Estonia, the economic Mighty Mouse and darling of the West.


Men like Tarand and Zvonkov are rediscovering each other, after 50 years of forced cohabitation.


Tarand slipped out to the corridor, to smoke a cigarette and speak his mind.


"It's not so much misinformation that causes our disagreements, it's the Russian unwillingness to change their ways of thinking," he said. "Russia really must get rid of her imperial tendencies."


Back at the cocktail party, Zvonkov marveled at the consulate's finely appointed offices.


The grey office rug hugged the floor neatly and tightly, without wrinkles or sloppily cut corners; the same was true of the papered walls. Sleek Scandinavian office furniture gleamed under black conical lamps hanging from springy black cords.


"Look at this place, decked out in two weeks," Zvonkov said to his police chief -- partly to flatter his hosts, but also to chide the chief in a half-serious manner. "Why can't you fix up your office this well?''


"Give me the money and I'll do it," the police chief said.


The hosts to whom Zvonkov was being so polite -- the Estonian government -- claim as Estonian territory a rather large chunk of his Pskov oblast known as the Pechory region.


It was not a subject Zvonkov wished to discuss.


"That problem does not exist for us," he said. "They will never get that land."


Like Tarand, Zvonkov prefers to talk about developing Russian-Estonian trade. He zoomed off on a tangent about Estonian butter.