Frontiers of Change
Lithuania’s borders go through a historic transition
Fences are decidedly unromantic objects. In a perfect world, people would be free to roam without having to navigate a path through or around the fences that separate one plot of land from another.
Like them or not, though, fences serve a purpose. While inconvenient and disappointingly practical, barriers can also protect the people who live inside them from the unwanted consequences of allowing neighbours unchecked access into one’s home.
For almost 50 years, fences were the chief source of Lithuania’s woes. Some of the world’s most strictly patrolled borders trapped Lithuanians in a country to which they had no desire to belong. Meanwhile, Lithuania’s inability to erect borders gave free rein to strangers on Lithuanian territory.
The story of the country’s borders, then, is one of the most potent keys to understanding its history. What’s more, the borders themselves have often been the object of passionate historical events, leading to both bloodshed and rejoicing.
The fences surrounding Lithuania are currently undergoing a massive process of transformation. While some parts of the national borders are becoming ever more impenetrable, others are opening up to create corridors of free travel that last existed centuries ago. In the midst of this tremendous change, visitors and residents are witnessing a tremendous shift in the character of the barriers that surround the country.
Some 40 kilometres outside Vilnius, a strange glass box intrudes on the otherwise pleasant scenery of the country road leading east from the capital. Surrounded by a modest plaza trimmed with flowers, the box contains a trailer that was the site of one of the bloodiest events that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union.
This is Medininkai, the spot where, during the uncertain days after independence was declared on 11 March 1990, border guards first began defending the newly-restored frontier.
The large brick building stocked with advanced monitoring equipment that straddles the border with Belarus today is a tremendous upgrade over the makeshift provisions used by the first border guards. The post, which was completed in 1998, is one of the 15 international highway border crossing points operated by the State Border Guard Service, the agency charged with guarding and protecting Lithuania’s frontiers.
Petras Laurinavičius, one of the shift directors at the Medininkai post, has seen first-hand the changes that have transformed Medininkai from a ramshackle operation into one of Europe’s more serious border crossings.
“I’ve been here since the beginning, since there wasn’t even a post to speak of,” said Laurinavičius.
“When we first began, our ‘building’ was just a freight wagon that had been dragged over to the side of the road here. We didn’t have uniforms, so we just wore civilian clothes. And the only weapons we had fired rubber bullets. We didn’t have real guns.”
Those first heady days of border patrol were tragically shattered on 31 July 1991, when seven Medininkai guards were gunned down, allegedly by agents working for Omon, one of the Soviet Union’s secret security organs.
The glass container sheltering the trailer where the guards were assassinated now stands in the shadow of the permanent Medininkai facility, a constant reminder of the high price that was paid for the border that exists today.
From its violent beginnings, the line that separates Lithuania and Belarus has drawn a degree of attention disproportionate to its otherwise demure appearance. The twisting 653-kilometre frontier winds a path through quiet pine forests, runs over secluded creeks, and even slices in two a few villages unlucky enough to be situated on it.
While it may consist mostly of nothing more than unspoilt nature, on 1 May this line became an external border of the European Union, meaning it is now a gateway into the world’s largest free economic zone. With this fact in mind, the EU is pumping tremendous sums of money into making sure that the border is as secure as possible.
“This is the gate into the EU,” Laurinavičius said. “A huge amount of transit to the rest of the EU comes through Lithuania.”
Over the next three years, the country expects to receive 500 million litas in direct financial aid from the EU to make the border as airtight as possible. A metal fence equipped with video cameras and motion detectors is to be put up along large portions of the border. Special infrared surveillance devices will notice when the line is violated at night, and a patch of earth raked on a regular basis will capture the footprints left on the border.
Similar projects are envisioned for the lengthy frontier with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, yet another new EU external border.
Aside from the attention the borders are receiving because of EU-related issues, the same lines became the external boundaries of the world’s most powerful military organisation this March when Lithuania joined Nato.
Because of this dual upgrade, the long frontier with Belarus is being adjusted for military needs as well as civilian ones. As a result, the boundary separating the two countries has evolved into a front line of Nato’s external monitoring programmes, including radar operations and Quick Air Response missions.
The plans for the border may seem aggressive, but both Lithuania and Belarus view them as a necessary step to shoring up a porous frontier that is becoming increasingly vulnerable to smuggling and illegal migration.
“We have good relations with our Belarusian counterparts,” said Jurgis Jurgelis, chief of the State Border Guard Service.
“The relationship is not adversarial. We work with them to help solve problems we have, such as catching people carrying contraband across the border, and deterring illegal migration.”
Until the EU-sponsored projects are implemented, the goodwill between the Lithuanian and Belarusian border services will have to substitute for some necessary equipment that the State Border Guard Service has yet to acquire. For instance, wintertime snow removal along large stretches of the border is performed by horse-drawn plough.
Nonetheless, Medininkai is a good example of the high level of protection the State Border Guard Service has managed to create in a relatively short period of time. An advanced computer database checks records of all travellers who cross the border against lists of wanted criminals and counterfeit documents, while a radioactivity detector that every car must pass through has, since 1995, guarded against dangerous materials from the Chernobyl disaster site being imported.
But the most recent change was on 1 May, when special traffic lanes were designated for EU citizens, a nonetheless small alteration in comparison with crossings on other parts of the border.
Free to roam
A station wagon with Latvian number plates pulls up to the checkpoint at the Kalvarija crossing just a few hundred metres before the road meets the border with Poland. Rūta Kairevičienė, a State Border Guard Service officer, approaches the driver of the vehicle, who hands her the passports of all the passengers.
After a quick survey of the documents, Kairevičienė passes them to her Polish counterpart, who is standing right next to her. With little more than 30 seconds having passed since the car first pulled into the post, the driver is once again in possession of the passports and free to leave Lithuania and enter Poland with no further checks.
Surveying the cars and lorries gliding past immigration control at the Kalvarija post, it is difficult to imagine that little more than a decade ago, this spot was an external Soviet border that no person would have crossed without risking his life. An electrified fence crowned with barbed wire still spans most of Lithuania’s 104-kilometre frontier with Poland.
Today, however, Kalvarija is one of hundreds of similar border crossings that all but disappeared when eight contiguous countries in Eastern Europe became official EU members. Similar changes have been made at all of
Lithuania’s border crossings into Poland and Latvia.
“It’s so easy for people to cross now,” Kairevičienė said. “It’s easier for us border guards, too.”
Even though Lithuania and its neighbours have yet to be accepted into the Schengen zone of borderless travel, an EU regulation stipulates that citizens of all member states must be allowed to enter other EU countries with minimum hassle.
Accordingly, when both Poland and Lithuania joined the Union on 1 May, the Kalvarija post became a concrete example of the freedom and cooperation promised. Whereas lorry queues used to stretch for kilometres as drivers waited for customs approval for their loads, the customs regime between Lithuania and Poland is now history.
The cumbersome double-checking process for immigration, where passengers were examined both when leaving Lithuania and entering Poland, has been replaced by the streamlined system implemented by officers like Kairevičienė and her Polish counterpart working together simultaneously. And, on a more symbolic level, the Lithuanian and Polish flags now fly side-by-side on both countries’ territory.
Kalvarija’s transition from a “hard” border post to its newer, gentler manifestation has been so smooth that the biggest inconvenience occurred as a result of factors that where beyond anyone’s control.
“There’s a one-hour time difference between Lithuania and Poland, so we joined the EU an hour before them,” said Tomas Alekna, assistant chief of the Kalvarija post, who was on duty on the night of 30 April.
“So at midnight our time, we raised the Polish and EU flags, put up the special channels for EU citizens, and stopped checking passports the old way. But it was still eleven o’clock their time, so we were the only ones working this regime.”
Now cars from various countries whizz over the border in a constant rush. Even the Soviet-era electrified fence is being pulled down in a demonstration of the new freedom of movement between the two countries.
But as much euphoria as the freedom of travel has brought about, it has also introduced a new set of problems which border officials must now grapple with.
More freedom … at a price
Belarus isn’t the only of Lithuania’s neighbours that exports problem situations. Neither is Lithuania devoid of criminals engaging in international activities that spill over into nearby countries.
Whereas the tightened border controls with Belarus will help officials to curb illegal activities there, laxer measures on the borders with Latvia and Poland have led to fears that it will now be easier for smugglers and other criminals to slip abroad unnoticed.
“From our perspective, not everything about joining the EU is purely positive,” said Jurgelis. He is spearheading programmes that will seek to halt unlawful activities such as trafficking in humans, drugs and arms.
“We’re going to have to do a lot more work inside the country, not just at the borders. We’re also cooperating with other law enforcement agencies to make sure we share as much information as possible.”
There will also be heightened efforts to stop illegal migrants from using Lithuania as a staging post for EU countries further west.
Meanwhile, the friendlier border procedures at places like Kalvarija do not yet mean that border guards are left without any means of policing the traffic entering and leaving the country. Regulations allow officers to stop suspicious-looking vehicles and question their drivers or passengers. Officials report that they single out roughly 2 per cent of vehicles for such interviews.
According to Alekna, in the first month after EU accession, the number of travellers caught with fake documents and criminals attempting to flee the country through the Kalvarija post remained at an average level.
“In June, we seized 13 counterfeit passports and arrested about 30 criminals. This is more or less average. We don’t see a significant change in the trends for these activities.”
Yet as the State Border Guard Service works to ensure security in the light of today’s freer travel, the current border regulations are just a foretaste of what will eventually erase the country’s southern and northern borders altogether.
Schengen or bust
As an EU member, Lithuania will soon be eligible for borderless travel, one of the most tangible and popular benefits of European solidarity. While the EU’s ten new states were not immediately invited to sign up to the Schengen Agreement, the fundamental document that abolished most border controls between European countries, Lithuanian officials are working hard to make sure the country attains full Schengen status as soon as possible.
The interior minister, Virgilijus Bulovas, the senior official in charge of getting Lithuania ready for Schengen, said his ministry is putting much effort into harmonising the country’s immigration standards with Schengen requirements.
“We were originally hoping to join on 1 January 2007. Unfortunately, some of the funds promised did not come from Brussels in time, so we fell behind in our plans,” he said.
“We don’t plan to be fully ready by then. After experts from Brussels analyse our systems, we expect to be admitted at the beginning of 2008.”
Lithuania’s preparation for Schengen is requiring the full attention of numerous government agencies. In addition to the upgraded computer systems that will be used by the State Border Guard Service, the coastguard and the police are being called upon to make alterations to the way they operate.
But once the work is done and Lithuania becomes a bona fide Schengen state, the country’s borders will undergo the most dramatic alteration since they were first put up in 1990.
The 692 kilometres of frontier that Lithuania shares with Poland and Latvia will exist only in the imagination, as all controls will disappear.
The gravity of the future developments has not been lost on those working to make sure they happen.
“The first day in May was a big step,” Bulovas said. “We began a period when EU citizens are able to cross our borders with a minimum of disturbance. But the truly historic moment will happen when we join Schengen. That’s what we’re now waiting for.”
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