Otepää defying former foreign minister on Chechen tourism

Urmas Paet MEP (Reform).
Urmas Paet MEP (Reform). Source: ERR

MEP Urmas Paet (Reform), a former foreign minister, has reiterated his criticisms of Otepää municipality in signing a tourism accord with the Chechen Republic, saying the document should be nullified. Spokespersons for Otepää have indicated the project will go ahead, however.

"This deplorable agreement was signed by the municipality government of Otepää two days before Christmas with the Kadyrov regime, which is noted for its human rights violations,'' said Mr Paet. The Chechen Republic, or Chechnya, is a federal republic and a constituent part of the Russian Federation. Its leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been cited for various human rights abuse claims including forced disappearances and torture as well as infringements on women's rights and those of LGBTQI+ people.

''Among other things, the government of the Estonian municipality of Otepää pledges to respect the legal order of the Russian region of Chechnya, which is repressive and violates human rights," Mr Paet continued. 

Foreign ministry should make its stance clear

Otepää is traditionally (and officially) the ''winter capital'' of Estonia and is a popular cross-country skiing resort, hosting a round of the world cross-country skiing championships in January and the somewhat more light-hearted European sauna marathon the following month.

Mr Paet echoed claims he had made before Christmas, noting that the relatively free rein he says municipalities have should not mean they can make international agreements which "undermine the reputation of the Estonian state and lend a supporting hand to a regime which violates human rights," in his words.

"I invite the council of Otepää to cancel this agreement, since it runs directly counter to the democratic realm of values in Estonia which respects human rights, as well as our position in international cooperation and responsibility," he continued, adding that the foreign ministry should formulate a clear stance on the matter. 

The current foreign minister is Sven Mikser (SDE).

Huge business opportunity

However spokespersons for Otepää municipality remained firm on going ahead with the accord.

"I had a brief opportunity to visit Chechnya in autumn,'' said Otepää municipality elder Kaido Tamberg via spokespersons last week.

"Fifteen million people live in the Caucasus. It is an area with growing purchasing power where it's definitely worthwhile to be present with our tourism information. We hope to see skiers and other visitors from that region here as well soon," Mr Tamberg added.

''It is a safe and hospitable country, with a tremendous natural and cultural heritage ... I believe that our compatriots will soon find their way to the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. Today, the Chechen minister of tourism, Mr Baitaziyev, is visiting us, and together we will open an information office about Chechnya here in Otepää,'' he continued.

The information area is to include tourist blurb in English as well as in Estonian and Russian, and a reciprocal information point on Otepää and Estonia is to be opened in the Chechen capital, Grozny, it is reported. Cultural exchanges as well as tourist and sports-related projects are reportedly under consideration as well.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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