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A Tale of Two Cities - Valga and Valka celebrating reunification

It may not have shaken the world like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the elation felt by the people was just as genuine. On December 21, residents of Latvia's Valka and Estonia's Valga celebrated the end of a frontier that had divided their city since the independence of the two countries. Just before midnight, several hundred people gathered on both sides of the border to mark the entry of the Baltic countries into the Schengen Agreement, which terminates border crossing formalities. Some have criticized Schengen, which now covers 24 countries from Malta to Iceland, for allegedly making life easier for criminals and illegal immigrants. But it would be hard to find anyone in Valga/Valka who agrees. "It'll be boring with no one to tyrannize us!" laughed one old woman.
"I've had nightmares about losing my passport and getting stuck on the other side," said a man playfully putting a foot over the line separating the countries.

Following a few speeches, fireworks and bars of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the crowd merrily surged across the border without passports – the first time in more than 15 years they had enjoyed that freedom.

Walk the line
The mood is understandable considering how artificial this border has been. The centuries-old town was a single entity until Estonia and Latvia gained statehood after World War I. A joint Estonian-Latvian commission was set up in 1920 to decide the town's fate, but it failed to reach an agreement. So the British, who played a role in the independence struggles, stepped in and simply drew a line along a stream running through the city. The Estonians got the railway station and market, and to this day Valga (population 14,000) is double the size of Valka.

Under Soviet rule there were no border posts, but they were reinstalled in 1992. Imposed by politicians in the distant capitals, the border became a bureaucratic nightmare. It took years of campaigning to ease the rules on Latvian children going to the swimming pool on the Estonian side. Many people were detained for minor passport breaches, and due to the lengthy formalities many stopped crossing altogether. Economic and cultural ties withered, and the area's ethnically mixed families faced a particularly tough time.

"People were very hostile at the border - imagine having to wait an hour in line every time you had to cross it," said Inguna Plume, editor of the Valka newspaper Ziemellatvija. "So every Estonian and Latvian resident is overjoyed about these changes."
They didn't just happen in one day. Rather, things started easing up after the Baltics joined the EU in 2004, with Brussels lifting the dead hand of national politicians and making it easier to travel. Significant numbers of Latvians now work in factories in Valga, while Estonians travel the other way to Valka's international theater festival. And there are other, more unexpected visitors too. Following riots in Tallinn in April 2007, the Estonian authorities imposed nationwide bans on alcohol sales. Valka's retailers saw a six-fold rise in sales as people from all over Estonia headed for the closest place to get a drink.

Naturally, the official part of the Schengen celebrations focused on more elevated forms of togetherness. Politicians said their countries are growing up, as petty national interests disappear within a bigger European identity.
"While in the last century Estonia and Latvia raised their national consciousness by erecting the border, in 2007 the national consciousness has risen sufficiently in both countries to bring it down," said Latvian President Valdis Zatlers.
His Estonian counterpart Toomas Hendrik Ilves suggested that town residents get together for a big Midsummer Eve party, a tradition cherished in both Latvia and Estonia.

Bridging the divide
In the meantime, the integration of the two sides is speeding up. A long disrupted bus service between Valga and Valka has resumed. A major retailer is working on a supermarket in a building which, ironically, was going to be a store in the early 1990s before the erection of the border just 100 meters away made it unfeasible. Credit cards are widely used in both countries, eliminating currency problems.
But there are big challenges. Both Valka and Valga have suffered from a lack of investment due to their peripheral location, and according to Ãœlle Juht, at the Valga Development Agency, the building boom in Tallinn has left local employers desperately short of workers.
"We have a shortage of young, qualified people, but now that the physical border is gone it may be easier to get finance for various projects" she said.
Still, there are lots of ideas about how to take advantage of the region's location astride important trade routes. The town is on the Via Hanseatica, a road link slated for EU funding as a transnational highway, and further down the track an EU project called Baltic Tangent 3 anticipates a transport route running from Western Europe all the way to China. Valga hopes it can become a part of this network.

In the meantime local people are already thinking beyond borders. They go to Riga rather than Tallinn for shopping because it's a bit closer, says Juht, and she hopes the national authorities can restore train services with the Latvian capital.
In other areas, Latvians and Estonians have already started jointly planning infrastructure in order to use their resources better. Laila Ontensone is the director of the Estonia-Latvia Institute, an organization developing bilateral education projects. One of their biggest schemes is to convert a dilapidated part of Valka into a college, where youths from both countries could attend courses. With an Estonian father and Latvian mother, and fluent in both languages, her outlook embraces both cultures. While the border has hindered the development of a common identity, things may improve now.

"In recent years what we've had in common has been this borderland status, but the border has been more of a problem than a help," she said. "But now that will change, people will feel freer, and we have great opportunities to work together."
Language is a controversial issue in the Baltics, but pragmatism seems to be the guiding principle in this region. According to Ontensone, elderly Estonians and Latvians converse in Russian, but the lingua franca of the young is English. Meanwhile, Estonian and Latvian are now being taught as foreign languages in the opposite countries, and Latvian doctors have studied Estonian to work in the big hospital in Valga. A Korean restaurant on Valga's main square which has menus in Estonian, Latvian, English and Russian seems to sum up the easygoing, multicultural attitude.

Despite the difficulties caused by the border, everyone agrees that relations between the nationalities are harmonious. But even good neighbors like to have a laugh about each other. Juht said that the one word of Latvian every Estonian knows is saldejums, meaning ice cream, from the Soviet-era habit of popping over to Valka where the stuff was available. For their part, the Latvians have a rich store of anecdotes about the famously phlegmatic Estonians and their tendency to be, well, a bit slow. But not everyone agrees with the stereotypes.
"Latvians like to tell these jokes, but I always say to them, 'Watch it, I'm half Estonian but I'm not half slow!'" said Ontensone.

By Philip Birzulis