Saturday is likely to see the vote of no confidence against Narva mayor Katri Raik (SDE) succeed. Raik already has a new job in Narva, but she intends to return to city administration as soon as possible.
Do you regret being elected Narva's mayor?
No, absolutely not. It has been an incredible experience; I've had, so to speak, a double experience: immediately before the election, the election itself, and then nearly two years following the election. I am glad to see the conclusion of such a visible public activity, which has lasted since the end of 2018 for a total of five years: a minister, then a member of parliament and lastly the mayor of Narva. I am really enjoying this slightly unconventional lifestyle, but I will need to take a step back now and then move forward again. I am not giving up on politics or Narva. This much is evident.
What new job are you looking forward to?
Even though I have not signed a contract, I can say I have found a job in the public sector in Narva. And I am happy to have found this position; it has given me a great deal of confidence. I honestly did not want to wind up in the unemployment fund and I do not believe now is the time to relax. This is still an excellent moment to be politically active in Narva. There are many worries and anxieties circulating about what will happen next in Narva, but in order to prevent it, we have to monitor the situation and look the new administration in the eye. In this sense, my desire to remain in Narva is genuine, and I can say that if I had not found a position in Narva, I would have had to think moving elsewhere, but Narva would be in the background.
Is your new job related to the education sector?
Indeed, indeed! However, I cannot elaborate at the moment.
What changes have you brought about to Narva's political and social life?
After the tank incident, a wise man told me that a white man also thought he was changing Africa, but Africa changed him. Certainly, it is more challenging to articulate what I have brought to Narva than how Narva changed me. There are brighter-colored outfits in my wardrobe and my fingernails are now a vibrant shade of red, but Narva has also taught me to understand things with my heart, as there are times when my mind does not grasp it. Narva has made me a much more tolerant person. I have always been amazed and captivated by the people in Narva, by their ability to appreciate life despite having very little money. I think we have opened up Narva to Estonians and to many other people as well. We contributed to the development of tourism, welcomed guests and communicated regularly with foreign nations.
I have always been very passionate about the issue of jobs; if there are still no jobs, then there is no purpose in having a city because Narva's population is rapidly declining—700 to 900 people per year, half of whom are going to the cemetery.
So many people are leaving Narva. Now, thanks to the Just Transition, new jobs are being created and I would like to be there when they finally materialize, because at the moment they're still in their initial development. Also, I think that we have managed to create a lot of important documents for the city: the development strategy, the master plan, which is in the process of being adopted, and a number of other strategic documents. What's more, I have educated my colleagues and pushed them to communicate a lot with the people.
What people can actually see are the big projects that have been completed in the city: the roads, the two state high schools, one is finished, the other will be finished soon. These are state projects, but the city has done its part as well. The Narva City Hall is ready, the first brand-new kindergarten will be opening this winter and the central city school will be ready next fall.
The old town of Narva has become a beautiful urban space as the Soviet-era buildings have been demolished and are still in the process of being demolished. The first residential building will be built on their place. I could go on. This dismissal was unexpected for me. I was not prepared for it in any way; I have a work to do until the last minute, until tomorrow evening. A lot of work was done during last summer as there were no council meetings in the summer; as the councilors were on vacation, it was much quieter to get things done.
The politics of Narva, the local administration, seems a bit different when you look at it from here in Tallinn; it seems that maybe things are not quite as they should be under the rule of law. How can we make sure that political analysts here in Tallinn do not use a word like corrupt power culture to describe the governance of Narva?
It has to be proven that this is not the case, doesn't it? And it takes time, too; things cannot be changed with a snap of the finger. I have lived in the world for so long and I understand very well that rapid change isn't possible. You have to get a lot of people on board with the change—at least two-thirds of those affected by the change—before you can change something or make a difference. Two of Narva's gray cardinals have been in jail, right? So it's a good start there are no more gray cardinals.
That things are being done honestly and openly through the appropriate committees, that's important. It will take time, but once again the reality is that Narva is on the right track.
In Narva, two things were very important: if you are on the council, your job is essentially protected, whether you meet the qualifications or not. If you're a principal...
... who does not meet the language requirements
Yes, as expressed at the Center Party congress, you do not quit your job, regardless of your proficiency in Estonian, your level of education, or the fact that you are not the best candidate in the competition. So regardless of the position, it must be preserved, and it is the mayor's responsibility to do so. The bickering for municipal government seats is another factor. These are two challenging issues to solve.
It can only be done after the new elections, so that the committees of the city authorities, Narva Hospital, and Narva Water include at least some specialists. People are so used to receiving these bonuses: you get about €300-400 each month in your bank account for one appointment, and then an extra €500 from the council, so a total of at least €800 to €1000 in your bank per month. It's not a small amount, especially in Narva, where the average salary is €1,200. So when this council fee is taken away, my God, what an outcry! And it is in no way surprising that people do not attend council meetings and councils do not take decisions in this situation.
This could be changed after the next elections; it is simply not possible now under the current circumstances. As far as the employment contracts of school principals are concerned, it is the most serious problem: in the situation of transition to Estonian language instruction in schools that have been teaching in Russian, if the principals of educational institutions do not meet the requirements themselves, we certainly cannot demand the same of the teachers. It is always the principals first, followed by the people who work with them.
Is Narva now the only municipality with such problems? I do not think so. I don't have much experience with other municipalities, but even the leaders of quite small municipalities tell me that this kind of trading of posts goes on elsewhere. Narva has stood out simply because of the trials, but it is worth taking a closer look at other places.
Who are the ones pulling the strings in Narva politics today? Who will remain when you leave?
So now there will be two big groups and then some people who don't know where they belong. Aleksei Jevgrafov and Jana Kondrašova are the chairs respectively, but I anticipate taking over soon the latter soon. So it is up to Aleksei Jevgrafov and me to draw these lines of force. But what happened in Narva cannot be reduced to a conflict between Aleksei and me because it is in fact a conflict of values.
Street names: what's the story now? This topic should just be closed.
Basically, Aleksei's vision is that Narva is a small, isolated place where people do things according to their own rules. I tried to show that Narva is a city where both the European Union and Estonia begins, where the sun rises first.
Narva has had its good times, and this has always been due to its very favorable and very interesting geographical location. Even now, when a magnet factory is being built in Narva, it is because the production of earth metals is in Sillamäe, because there is electricity here, because there is transportation links here. Nothing will change the location of Narva, but the people of Narva need hope, a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, and the realization that it cannot be the lights of an incoming train, but that it really is something better. The people of Narva need hope, and this is the hope I have tried to give them.
Is there anything in Narva's politics that the police should look at more closely?
I do and will continue to communicate with my former colleagues from the defense police. Otherwise, we cannot get rid of the difficult stories if we do not draw attention to them. Estonia is a state based on the rule of law. There are a lot of things where you know they are wrong, so you try to prove them.
As mayor, how many compromises did you have to make in the name of power that you did not want to make in your heart?
A few months ago, I thought that if you spend a long time with wolves, you'll start howling too, and that your inner compass could start to waver. Some things don't seem so awful anymore, as in, well, we need to find a job for that one person.
I stopped at the right moment. I did not do it, but I was rather surprised that I even came up with that idea. When you're in the minority with your values, you... It's a little embarrassing to speak about, but if I would not talk about it, it would be also bad.
Sometimes I leave something important unsaid. Before the war, on May 9, I went to lay flowers at the tank monument, like the people of Narva, because I wanted to be with my people and show solidarity with them. I said that I laid the flowers there for the end of the Second World War, for the end of fascism. But I didn't mention the other side of the coin - that for us the second horror began, the Soviet occupation.
Looking back, I realize I should have said that. I definitely learned in those two years to say things more clearly, to stand up to people, and to just say things straight out. I learned to walk a narrow path, one foot at a time, slowly but steadily. I think it has made me much stronger a person and a politician.
Did you feel the state's support as mayor of Narva?
I can't say that the state has done nothing; that would be grossly incorrect.
Let's just consider the fact that the cost of building our school in the city center is €23 million, of which €15 million has come from the Estonian government. In our road project, essentially half of the money comes from the state. For the hospital in Narva, we are in the final stages of getting the money for reconstruction and construction. So for the most part I have had very, very good cooperation with the ministers and officials. Of course, coming directly from the Riigikogu, it was much easier for me to call the people I had been with, whether in coalition or opposition, on different sides, because I just knew all the people. Narva certainly needs a mayor who can knock on different doors in Tallinn, and I have seen many ministry officials who have never said "no" to help. Moreover, I was consulted by national authorities and other municipalities.
You said that the people of Narva are well aware of the situation in Russia. How would you then explain the success of Koos in Narva?
What I meant was that, in reality, it's not the political situation in Russia that Narva people know; it's how bad life can be. The success of Koos is directly linked to the tank removal. Aivo Peterson said what people liked to hear the most. He talked about it on Youtube, he wrote about it on Facebook: "It is our tank, we are against war and we are not to blame for that war." People liked to hear taht; he spoke in simple sentences, and the March [parliamentary] election was relatively close to those summer events and the shock of people.
After all, only Estonian citizens voted in the parliamentary elections, for a result in which Aivo Peterson (Koos) and Mihhail Stalnuhhin (independent candidate) came very close to receiving a personal mandate, especially Stalnuhhin. It certainly sobered up Estonian politics, but its only outcome was the creation of the post of representative of Ida-Viru County and the money for the Narva hospital, which were then written into the coalition agreement.
I think success lies in political parties taking Narva seriously. However, it is true that many political forces in Tallinn do not worry about Narva because they do not receive any voters from the city. There is nothing that could convince the citizens of Narva to vote for Isamaa or the Reform Party. It is up to the political parties to look in the mirror.
How often do you communicate with the Social Democratic Party?
I have never been a good social democrat and I have never done any party related work, I am simply not that type of person and I don't know how to do it. But perhaps I have to learn.
Speaking of elections, should Russian citizens be deprived of the right to vote in Estonian local elections?
I am still very skeptical about this. It is 36 percent of Narva's population; what are we offering to them instead? They then have no say at all in local life. In the end, Estonian citizens voted for Koos and Stalnuhhin [in parliamentary elections]. Why are we punishing our Russian residents for the way Estonian citizens voted?
I wouldn't touch that subject; it is difficult to take something away from people who already have it. And both the chancellor of justice and the president have said that it violates the Constitution. So I wouldn't play with this thought, but I would suggest that political parties become more active in Narva. And we need to show people a better life, offer other symbols instead of the tank, such as a new town hall, for example. We need to host even more sporting and cultural events in Narva, even though there are plenty already.
Moreover, we need to bring the Estonian language more and more into the public sphere. In this sense, Narva has changed a lot. It is no longer the case that you have to give a speech in Russian or that you necessarily have to translate the whole speech; this has been a big change in recent years. But these changes have been difficult for people, all of them: the war, the change in politics, street name changes, monuments.
The tank was just a piece of street furniture. I, too, climbed on top of it in my high heels 20 years ago. Pink, light blue, sometimes blue-black and white, were usually tied to the cannon, perhaps an Estonian citizen was to be born. After all, the tank cannon resembled a phallus. The tank was no longer a symbol of war, but somehow a part of life. It became a symbol of war after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
But never mind the tank, the tank is gone and it is completely forgotten. Maybe in some kitchen, over a glass of vodka, on a Friday night, it will be remembered with a kind word, but the real question is how we move forward. And we can only move on in new ways with new symbols and new traditions.
And this means that the environment has to get better and new homes have to be built in Narva. In the new millennium, only one residential building has been built and one reconstructed — it is astonishingly few.
Why is the process of building new apartment blocks so cumbersome?
You cannot get a loan. The first payment is delivered in a plastic bag and afterwards you can't get a loan, developers say. With the war, the St Petersburg Russians dropped out. You can't get a loan in Narva because Narva is in Narva.
What are Narva's economic and business prospects? The border closure has rendered Narva a dead end.
Currently, tourism is about 25 percent lower than it was prior to the pandemic. The Estonians are great tourist because they comes to see this miracle and discover that the city is exceptionally clean and stunningly beautiful, the old town is nice, the promenade is nice and you can take a boat. You can also access Kreenholm if you visit on a Sunday. So in that respect, thank you to those who have been to Narva and return again. What about the dead end? That's a tricky one, because if you look at the map, that's indeed where the western world begins or ends.
But again, a major plus for the development of industry in Narva is that there are people willing to work eight hours in a factory. I hope that there will be a rise in the number of people returning from abroad. Last Christmas, when we organized the first Narva Valgusküla (Christmas market - ed.), you could see fathers coming back from Norway and Finland and taking their children there every day. "You're not going away yet?", was a question that was repeated painfully often. Jobs are still what a city is really based on.
Editor: Mari Peegel, Kristina Kersa