A tale of two cities: Estonia’s Narva prospects while Russia’s Ivangorod decays

Few in the West had ever heard of Narva – the city of some 60,000 residents, more than 80 per cent of whom are ethnic Russians, located on the eastern border of Estonia – until Vladimir Putin’s propagandists, in the wake of the Russian Anschluss of Crimea, raised the question in NATO capitals, “are you prepared to die for Narva?”

That question was intended to sap Western support for its NATO ally, Estonia, and more generally for NATO countries neighbouring Russia and threatened by Putin’s aggressive stance. But it had exactly the opposite effect, leading ever more people in the West to recognise that unless they were prepared to defend Narva, they would be destroying the Western alliance.

And their actions have led some commentators to say that the person the question, “are you prepared to die for Narva?” should be directed to is Putin, who by asking it has helped revive NATO and underscored the reality the Kremlin dictator is quite prepared to go to the brink of nuclear war to try to achieve his ends.

But now, as even Russian news agencies concede, there is another reason to focus on Narva and ask what may prove an even more explosive question about Russia and the West. Narva is prospering while Ivangorod, the Russian town just across the river from it, is slipping ever further behind.

Narva - Jaak Kadak

The reason such a question is so provocative is that the ethnic Russians in Narva, a city in a NATO country, are doing far better than the ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation currently ruled by Putin, a pattern that indicates just where the responsibility for their success in the former and their failure in the latter belongs.

Narva invests

Picking up a BaltNews.ee report, Russia’s Regnum news agency reported that in 2016, the city of Narva invested more than €4 million (US$5 million) in construction and reconstruction of roads, housing and other social infrastructure.

Building on those accomplishments, the Narva mayor’s office says the city will be expanding its investment projects in the coming year, refurbishing two major squares, building new schools, extending the river promenade (facing the Russian side) and upgrading and expanding its tourist infrastructure as well.

Narva river promenade - Visit Estonia

During the past year, the Narva leaders continue, “the entire complex of services and subsidies allowing for timely help for urban residents with local incomes, elderly people, families with children, and people with special needs was preserved in tact in 2016”, an achievement the EU has recognised and praised.

Meanwhile, just across the Narva River in Ivangorod, Russia, the situation is very different. Incomes are stagnating or falling for its 10,000 residents. The city has fewer resources than before to provide social services because of cutbacks in Moscow’s transfer payments. And the prospects for the future are anything but bright.

Russians clearly recognise this: there is currently a two-kilometre line of cars leaving Russia and seeking entry into Estonia for the holidays; there is no such line of cars leaving Estonia and seeking entry into Russia.


The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Narva castle (courtesy of EAS.)

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