Thursday

12th Dec 2019

Security fears prompt fences on EU-Russia border

  • Estonia-Russia border crossing (Photo: Tony Bowden)

Russia’s kidnapping of an Estonian security officer has, in part, prompted Estonia and Latvia to build fences on the Russia border.

The Estonian project is to see a 2.5-metre barbed wire fence on parts of its 136-km land boundary with Russia.

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  • Latvia's fences will be much shorter than Estonia's (Photo: U.S. Army Europe Images)

The interior ministry told EUobserver it'll be “very limited in comparison with the total length of the border”. But it told the AFP news agency it will span most of it, except some wetlands. The ministry also said it's putting buoys in lakes and rivers to stop boats.

Latvia is building short strips of fence on either side of border crossings on its 214-km Russia border.

“It’s not like what the Estonians or the Hungarians are doing”, a Latvian interior ministry source said, referring to Hungary’s anti-migrant fence on its border with Serbia.

The two Baltic States are clearing 10-metre to 12-metre strips of land on their side from forest and other obstacles to help border guards get around.

They’re also upgrading technology. The Estonian ministry said there'll be “beyond state-of-the-art” UAVs, sensors, radars, and cameras. Latvia is “replacing” old kit with up-to-date models.

Both projects started months ago and are to be completed in 2018.

Estonian media say it’s spending €71 million. Latvia's spending €20 million.

Poland, in April, also announced €3.5 million of high-tech watchtowers on its border with Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.

Lithuania isn't following suit.

Treaty dispute

Estonia's project comes despite the fact it hasn’t concluded border formalities with Russia.

Russian MPs have yet to ratify the Estonia border treaty.

But the text is caught up in a 20-year old dispute on the preamble, which treats the continuity of Estonian statehood after the Soviet Union annexed it in 1918.

The Estonian foreign ministry said 92 percent of the existing border line will stay the same. But, under the project, the “course of the border will change” on a 128-hectare segment.

Kohver

Russian intelligence services kidnapped Eston Kohver, an Estonian security officer, from Estonian territory last August.

A Russian court, last week, jailed him for 15 years on espionage charges despite EU complaints.

Officially, the incident has nothing to do with the border initiatives.

The Estonian interior ministry said its project is meant to stop “smuggling of goods, trafficking in human beings”.

Latvia’s State Border Guard said its main concern is irregular crossings, especially by Vietnamese people, and tobacco and alcohol smugglers. It added there are “no tensions” on the Russia line.

But the Kohver incident, in the wider context of Russian revanchism, has had an impact.

Eerik Kross, an Estonian politician and former head of intelligence, told this website: “The Kohver incident most probably triggered the re-evaluation, the new assessment of the border security situation”.

“People were saying: ‘How could this happen? How can we make sure it doesn't happen again?”.

Raimonds Jansons, a Latvian foreign ministry spokesman, said the incident is “part of the background” of its border upgrade.

“There are several reasons why the border should be improved. But the current [international] security conditions and the events on the Estonia-Russia border played a certain role”.

Russia relations

Kross added the Estonian project is “also about a better physical mark-up” of the unratified line.

“The security situation [with Russia] is deteriorating, so it's important to define the boundary”.

The Russian foreign ministry couldn't be contacted on Friday.

It has, in the past, said former Soviet and former Communist EU members are creating “dividing lines” in Europe.

But Mari-Liis Valter, an Estonian foreign ministry spokeswoman, rejected the idea.

“Estonia, which was occupied by the Soviet Union for half a century, has plenty of experience of being on the other side of a wall ... in physical, psychological, and symbolic terms”, she said.

“We’ve no interest in returning to the Cold War era or in rebuilding walls in Europe. Indeed, we’re not building ‘a wall’ … we’re upgrading our external border”.

Vietnamese workers

Latvia said Vietnamese people are moving to the EU from Russia because they lost their jobs in a Russian crackdown on black-sector workers.

Latvian border guards detained 220 Vietnamese nationals in the first eight months of this year. Seventy one requested asylum and 147 have been expelled.

They detained 98 in 2014, 11 of whom requested asylum.

Expulsions cost Latvia more than €1,000 per person for flights to Hanoi. It's spending its own money because it's already used up EU funds in the European Commission’s European Return Fund.

A Latvian contact said Vietnamese people are being smuggled by international gangs.

He said one operation involved Czech, Estonian, Latvian, Polish, and Russian smugglers, coming from Russia’s Chechen Republic.

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