Russia has followed its standard practice in relation to Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) contractual logistics workers who inadvertently stray across Estonia's eastern border in its treatment of two personnel who did just that on Tuesday, Director of the authority Egert Belitšev says.
The pair, who had been inspecting the border infrastructure at Saatse, Võru County, using an ATV to get around, are still at the time of writing in detention inside Russia.
Estonia has submitted evidence and has been in communication with border guards on the Russian side of the frontier, and is awaiting the duo's release and return to Estonia.
Appearing on ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK), Belitšev said Tuesday's incident was: "Human error on the part of our staff. They had been working on the stretch of border all day, preparing for maintenance work, driving through various border sections, and it is there where they made a wrong decision. The situation out on the ground is such that there are two roads running side-by-side, one is on the Russian side, the other on the Estonian side. They mistakenly drove on to the Russian patrol lane."
Work on clearly demarcating Estonia's southeastern border with Russia, including with fencing, has been ongoing for several years but is not complete yet.
In its most recent communications as of the time when ERR spoke to Belitšev, ie. Wednesday evening, Russia had informed the Estonian side that it will be conducting procedural actions as prescribed by legislation. According to Belitšev, a new meeting has been arranged for Thursday morning, when additional information will be exchanged.
The Russian media has not widely covered the incident, according to Belitšev, so it is not possible to say unequivocally whether this has been good or bad. "So far, reports [in Russia] have had the same chain of events that we have, ie. how the situation panned out. Some people were working on the border, and they strayed some meters over the Russian side of the border, in a wilderness area."
As of Thursday afternoon, the men will have been detained for 48 hours. Belitšev noted that he does not know the details of Russian law so cannot say what will happen after that. As far as Estonian authorities are aware, the actions of the Russian side have so far followed the standard practices for such cases.
"We have explained from our perspective that it was done in error, and we hope that things will be handled on that basis, so that these individuals will be able to re-enter Estonia very soon," he added.
It is still too early to speculate when the detained PPA staff will return to Estonian soil, Belitšev noted. "For our part, we have provided physical evidence, we have demonstrated and outlined the incident, and all the evidence at our disposal shows very clearly that this was done in error, and in the case of an error, we expect people to be handed back to us."
Earlier reports stated that the two men, in thief 50s and 60s, had been part of a trio of personnel working on the stretch of border at Saatse – the third individual was not apprehended – and had been stranded after being unable to travel back on their ATV. Soon after that, they were intercepted by Russian border guards and led away to a place of detention.
Most of Estonia's eastern border follows watercourses, but the section in the Southeast covers largely sparsely populated, often boggy or forested, land.
This is complicated by the fact that not only, as noted, is the border not always clearly demarcated – even civilians relying too heavily on Google Maps for their navigation could in theory come to grief – but also that the frontier does not follow that agreed in the 1920 Treaty of Tartu, signed between the newly-independent Republic of Estonia, and the fledgling Soviet Russian state. That border lay several kilometers to the east, and included the Estonian town of Petseri (Russian: Pechory).
The revised border imposed by the Soviet Union bisects a distinct cultural and linguistic local populace, that of Setomaa, with members of the same Seto family often to be found on both sides of the frontier.
Another idiosyncrasy in Saatse itself is the so-called Saatse "boot", a portion of Russian territory sandwiched between Estonian territory. The 1km-long stretch of public road which links the Estonian territory and passes through Russian territory can be driven on, at least by Estonian citizens, though not more than that – no stopping or getting out of the vehicle is permitted, while should the car's occupants suffer the misfortune of a motor vehicle breakdown just at that critical point, they are instructed to remain in the vehicle and await instruction from the Saatse PPA station.
Both the migrant crisis on Belarusia's borders with Latvia and Lithuania in summer 2021, and the changed security situation with Russia's invasion of Ukraine starting February 2022, have concentrated minds on progressing with the border infrastructure in this region of Estonia.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja
Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera', interviewer Priit Kuusk.