The head of the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Alexey Pushkov, has purportedly told his Estonian counterparts that he suspended his group's planned visit to Tallinn this autumn because of a packed schedule, which would contradict quotes he gave to the Moscow press that Estonia's inflexibility on the border treaty issue was the reason for the move.
Earlier in the week, the Russian state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS quoted Pushkov saying: "Due to Estonia's well-known position on its border treaty with the Russian Federation, a position on which the Estonian side is insisting, the committee considered it appropriate to move the trip to a later date, when the sides return to an understanding on this issue."
However, Marko Mihkelson, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Estonian Parliament, told ERR News late on Wednesday that no mention of the border treaty was included in the notification he received from his counterpart in Moscow.
"I got the official letter today from my colleague Mr. Pushkov. It [says] that for them, November is a very busy month in the state Duma and they proposed finding a new time for our meeting," Mihkelson said.
Mihkelson had met with Pushkov in Moscow in May, when the latter accepted the invitation to have his committee visit Tallinn. "We talked about the possibility to have this visit done in October or November. We didn't fix a date but they agreed that they are interested in coming to Estonia," he said.
Though he said he could not comment specifically on Pushkov's statements in the press, Mihkelson said he wanted to keep the door open for further talks.
"My comment is that the Estonian Foreign Relations Committee is open for dialog with our Russian colleagues like we are open for dialog with all of our colleagues from different countries. And also, I am confident that only through dialog and direct contacts we can find ways to solve the problems that exist in Estonian-Russian relations," he said.
No Mixed Signals
The lack of a border treaty has been a major sticking point in relations between the two countries since 2005.
At that time, the two sides had in fact completed negotiations signed the treaty, but the process came to a halt at the 11th hour when the Russian Duma withheld ratification, citing the Estonian Parliament's inclusion of a reference to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty in the preamble to the treaty's ratification law. The Russian side claimed that the reference was a territorial pretension by Estonia.
Estonia and Russia have long been deadlocked on the issue; however, lately Russia has been signaling a strong desire to resolve the matter, and the delay of the Duma committee meeting, whatever the official reasons given, appears to be another of those signals.
Karmo Tüür, a University of Tartu political scientist and head of the Academic Center for Baltic and Russian Studies, sees no real contradiction in what Pushkov told the Russian press and what he told Mihkelson.
"You pick your words according to the format," he told ERR News. The message behind the message he is giving to Mihkelson is "we will wait and see what you'll do next," he said.
Tüür explained that some on the Estonian side are working on a way around the border treaty stalemate that would allow both sides to save face, namely merging the agreements on land and sea borders into one, which would require a new border document.
Estonia has long taken the position that, since the two sides already signed the agreement, there is nothing to talk about. The Russians, for their part, don't want to change the text of the agreement, but do not want to ratify the current treaty either. Calling the old agreement a new one, without any substantive changes, could be the best way forward, Tüür said.
"It's actually a pretty brilliant way to break the deadlock," Tüür said. However, he said, not everyone on the Estonian side is on board, hence the pressure being applied indirectly via Pushkov.
"They know we are already halfway to changing our position, and they want to push us the rest of the way," he said.