Two towns in Europe: Valka-Valga, two sides to the story

16 February 2011
Postimees Tallinn

A walk from Valka to Valga not only takes you from Lativa to Estonia, but you also have the impression of traveling from one era to another. Postimees reports on a quarrel between the old guard and the new in one of Europe’s far-flung border towns.

“Everything is better in Estonia,” quips editor, Ingūna Johansone, for the benefit of her arriving guests. With an ironic smile she explains: “That’s what Latvians always say, but I don’t think there is much of a difference.” Talk about Valga and Valka at the offices of Latvian regional newspaper Ziemeļlatvija, and people will always bring up the subject of former colleagues, friends and family members who are either working in Estonia or looking for jobs there. No one knows exactly how many Latvians are working in Valga. There are supposed to 200, which is quite a lot for a small town. The Latvians have also developed a fondness Estonian shops. And even if they complain that prices have risen since the euro was introduced, hundreds of them still cross the border do their shopping every weekend. “In Valga, one apartment in five is bought by a Latvian,” explains real estate agent, Hans Heinjärv. “But I don’t know of any Estonians who have bought on the other side.”

A scandalous incentive

Latvians have also begun to use the hospital in Valga. Last year, 300 of them received treatment on the Estonian side of the border and 82 were born there (a big increase over the previous year, when these figures  stood at 50 and 17 respectively). Until now, the eastward drift of the population in Valga/Valka has been a discreet and for the most part ad-hoc phenomenon. But all of that changed when last November, Valga’s young mayor, Ivar Unt, launched a campaign to encourage Latvians to register with municipal authorities as residents of Valga. As an incentive for the scheme, which was described as “scandalous” by Valka’s mayor, Kārlis Albergs, the participants were given a chance to win a gift voucher worth 319 euros. The ensuing uproar became national news when Latvian TV, radio, and newspaper journalists arrived from Riga to report on thriving Valga and Valka, where development appears to have ground to halt. The truth is that Valga is not one of the richer towns in Estonia. According to official figures, only Ida-Virumaa [a Russian speaking region in the northeast of the country] has a higher rate of unemployment. And the statistics also show that salaries in the border town are among the lowest in the country.

In Valga, you can still find a job

However, that is not to say that Valga is a socio-economic ghetto with homeless on every street corner. Poverty here is relative and and for the most part only apparent in the number of dilapidated houses and the general aspect of the place which looks more rundown than other towns in Estonia. The Soviet period left a major mark on Valga, which as a border town and rail hub, became a centre for a number of industries which no one seems to want anymore. But in spite of that, the Estonian town is in a better situation than Valka: mainly because it is larger and richer than its Latvian neighbour, and also because residents in Valga benefit from higher wages and a more generous social security system. In recent years, development on the Estonian side of the border has also been spurred by a number of new buildings and shopping malls, the opening of a number of small companies, a larger hospital and a brand new school. Under the snow, the difference between the two towns is barely visible. However, in summer people say that the walk across the border is like a trip down memory lane. For local people like Latvian textile worker Marite Runka, the key difference is that “in Valga, you can still find a job.” Anu Eesmaa, the head foreman at the Finnish owned factory where she is employed, jokingly refers to Marite as the leader of the leader of the “Latvian line,” because several of the 20 Latvians who have found work at the plant are in her production team.

Ordinary Latvians are quite fond of the Estonian mayor

Local Estonian entrepreneurs are keen to point out that they have no specific recruitment policy for Latvians, who for the most part have followed up personal contacts and word of mouth recommendations to join the labour force on the other side of the border. Sitting in his small office before the official photo of Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Valga’s dynamic young mayor, Ivar Unt, distributes tea and biscuits to his guests as he talks of his experience of the town’s dual heritage. Ordinary Latvians are quite fond of the Estonian mayor, who has earned a reputation for his courageous and innovative policies to develop local business, while his opposite number, Valka’s Kārlis Albergs, who is now close to retirement, adopts a more “old-school” approach. As it stands, the campaign to encourage Latvians to register as residents on the Estonian side of the border has only attracted ten respondents. However, the scheme is now being reorganised and once a number of bureaucratic complications have been ironed out, there could be a rapid upsurge in the number of arrivals in Valga. In any case,  Ivar Unt insists that this is just the first in a series of measures to boost the number of his constituents – an assertion which local Latvian politicians may well find worrying.