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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Bridges Over the Troubled Narva

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Last week, I witnessed something that gave me hope for the recently troubled relations between Russia and Estonia. While traveling to Tallinn with several St. Petersburg businesspeople, I saw that despite the disagreements between politicians in Moscow and Tallinn, ordinary people, especially those trying to do business, are making a huge effort to forge closer ties. They want to show their good will, which is the only way to achieve mutual benefits.

Naturally, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, and there are certain nationalists who refuse to stop hitting their heads against the wall and raising arguments about the role of the Soviet Union in the Baltic states. In contrast, from what I saw last week, most ethnic Russians and Estonians in Estonia are falling over themselves to show that they want to be friends.

Our hosts stopped any discord before it started. "I heard the question of occupation come up for discussion here at some point," one Estonian businessman said in a short speech to his Russian guests during the trip. "This is not our topic. This is not our business. We don't need it. We are friends here."

It was clear how quickly the illusions and misinformation about Estonians disappeared from the minds of the Russian businesspeople present as they talked to one another. I was stunned how strong and solid some ordinary Russians' misconceptions were. Many initially saw the Baltic states in a bad light, much the way state-controlled media outlets generally portray them.

"This was my first trip to Estonia, and, to be honest, when I was on my way there, I was nervous," one businesswoman told me as our bus left the border on its way back to St. Petersburg. "When I was leaving St. Petersburg, my parents told me there were fascists in Estonia and that I should be careful," she continued. "My mother called me when I was in Narva and asked what it was like there. I told her it was fine because most people in Narva are Russians, but that I was not in Tallinn yet."

"But when I came to Tallinn people spoke Russian to me and were very friendly. There were no fascists," she added. "I realized that I had an opinion [about Estonia], which is typical for an ordinary Russian, but that it was not correct."

The politicians who propagate the notion that across the Narva River lies hostile territory are likely to lose their game if Estonian authorities and businesses continue developing contacts with Russian businesspeople. If just one person realizes that their prejudices are wrong, this realization will spread by chain reaction. Everybody has friends and relatives who will hear the truth and change their minds.

The Estonians did a very good job of challenging these preconceptions. I was pleasantly surprised to see how simple and open many Estonian authorities were in their approach to their guests from Russia. "I was engaged in business myself in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. I sold cucumbers at a local market," a Tallinn city government official said in a speech. His remark seemed designed to break down barriers and open up dialogue.

About 10 years after the official sold his last cucumber in St. Petersburg, there he was in Tallinn, showing Russian businesspeople the new opportunities that they could take advantage of in Estonia.

And here I noticed something else positive. We Russians were surprised how smoothly business ran in Estonia. It operates with much less bureaucracy than it does here. The laws are clear, and tax policies are reasonable. The Russian businesspeople I was with were envious and were pleased that Estonians seemed willing to show their Russian colleagues how they do business.

That Estonia is ready to give Russia a business lesson is a promising development. What is more, many Russians are ready to sign up.

Vladimir Kovalev is a Staff Writer at the St. Petersburg Times.