'Pealtnägija' shadows officials working at Narva border checkpoint

PPA official working at Narva border checkpoint.
PPA official working at Narva border checkpoint. Source: ERR

Estonia's eastern border is currently under particular pressure from people fleeing Russia and Ukraine. How do Estonian border guards decide who to allow into the country and who not? ETV investigative program "Pealtnägija" was granted rare access and spent a Friday shadowing the work of officials at Narva's border checkpoint.

Since the implementation of sanctions, the Estonian-Russian border, which prior to the launch of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February saw the crossing of thousands of people and vehicles a day, has been quieter than usual.

Nonetheless, when 30-year Narva border checkpoint veteran and field manager Jaanika Karp began yet another 12-hour shift one Friday morning, her trained eye immediately noticed that border traffic had all but come to a halt altogether.

"We should ask bus drivers — so-called Estonian bus drivers that we trust — what exactly is going on over in Russia right now," Karp said to a fellow border guard.

Three weeks ago, all Russian citizens' tourist visas were revoked in response to Russia's ongoing aggression in Ukraine, and it was primarily refugees from Ukraine being let through the border. In recent days, however, images have reached social media of long lines on the other side of the border, where people were waiting in their cars or even out in the open for days without food and water.

Regardless of whether one arrives on foot, by bus or by car, initial checks are performed by regular border guards. If someone seems suspicious, they are taken aside for a second-level check. Particularly complex cases are directed to the field manager.

Around 11 a.m., a car with Estonian plates carrying a man with an Estonian residence permit accompanied by a woman with Russian and Moldovan citizenship who claimed she wanted to return to her home country via Estonia attracted border guards' attention.

"If she can prove that she will be traveling to her home country and if she can prove that she has all her plane tickets and reservations for wherever she'll be staying, then we'll allow the border crossing," Karp explained. "If someone simply says that they're driving home and they don't have a single reservation or plane ticket, then it's clear that they can't prove their travel itinerary."

The field manager has final say, and Karp doesn't find the travel-to-Moldova-via-Estonia story convincing. The woman's passport is stamped, and the stamp marked in turn with dashes and the letter E, denoting an entry ban.

According to Karp, border guards are used to hearing made-up stories and begging, but also being insulted.

Creating the most work for the Northeastern Estonian border checkpoint of late are long-distance buses. In the course of a day, around 100 passengers of such buses are pulled aside for more thorough checks at the border.

For example, Karp and document expert Janek Eltermaa processed a Russian man with a visa who wanted to enter Estonia to visit his ex-wife and daughter, who live in the country on a residence permit.

"What we're doing right now is, they don't have a long-term residence permit; they have a temporary residence permit," Karp told the man in question. "And since September 19th, we're no longer letting in people with temporary residence permits. Sanctions. Do you understand? You have to go back to Russia."

At the same time, a woman reached the border who wanted to check on an apartment she owns in Narva. While real estate ownership alone no longer grants individuals the right of entry, Estonia's Border Guard retains the right to make exceptions on compelling grounds.

"A neighbor called and said that it had flooded," the woman explained to Eltermaa. "I'm going there; there was an emergency, the water was shut off and I have to do everything in two days."

"How can you prove or demonstrate that an emergency or such a thing happened?" he asked, in response to which she offered he accompany her to see the apartment.

Reading between the lines

In addition to questions and searches, individuals' documents and databases are thoroughly checked as well. Stamps in the passport of the man claiming he wanted to visit his ex-wife and daughter in Estonia, for example, raise questions.

"Of course he's of a certain age, his visa is about to expire and he won't get a new visa," Eltermaa said. "Of course, he may also be of the sort who wants to dodge [Russia's military] mobilization. That's possible. Because as a rule, a passport is like a storybook. That requires reading skills as well — between the lines or wherever."

Following Russian regime leader Vladimir Putin's September 21 announcement of a partial mobilization, hundreds of thousands of men have tried to flee Russia. While it sparks mixed feelings, these men are sent back from the Estonian border.

"For instance, I had two male citizens from Russia yesterday, and they were on their way to visit a friend in Germany to go enjoy the final few days of Oktoberfest," Eltermaa recalled. "And as they didn't fall under the new provisions, I sent them back. Then there it was — 'This- is our last chance! Mobilization' and all of that. Sorry, not through our country."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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