Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington--Borders As Barriers And Bridges

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A Moscow newspaper complained on Tuesday that Russia now faces a problem which also confronts many of its neighbors: its state borders are "full of holes," a situation which, the paper said, threatens Russia's economy, integrity and national security.

Citing an internal report of the Federal Border Service, "Izvestiya" suggested that the country was losing 80 trillion rubles -- approximately $15 billion -- every year. Even more, the border guards were no longer in a position to prevent armed "infiltrations" from neighboring states.

The paper urged an increase in the budget of the border control service in order to reverse a situation where only 20 percent of the border is now guarded by alarms, down from 85 percent five years ago.

On the one hand, of course, the increasing porosity of the Russian state borders and the inability of the authorities to do anything about it simply reflect the general decay in Russian government institutions. Border guards have not been paid regularly. And not surprisingly, they are less willing or able to seal the border than they once were.

But on the other hand, "Izvestiya's" lament calls attention to the difficulties Russia and the other former Soviet republics have in coping with three simultaneous transformations in their border regimes.

Like the other countries in the region, Russia has had to convert internal administrative borders into effective international ones.

Because the Soviet state drew these administrative borders to make separation impossible -- ethnic groups were divided and economic lines disregarded republic lines -- only a small portion of them correspond to what might be called the natural borders of the core communities.

These states are having to do so at a time when the flow of people and goods across these borders has dramatically increased. According to "Izvestiya," more than 70 million people cross Russia's borders every year, a far higher figure than in Soviet times. Other states in the region face proportional challenges, all of which exceed the ability of their border guards and customs services.

These states are being forced to develop international border regimes of a type very different from the only international border that most of them have any experience with: that of the Soviet Union. And they must do so at a time when there is an active dispute over just how open the borders among the countries of this region should be.

"Izvestiya's" complaint about the collapse of the Russian border is implicitly based on the assumption that the Russian government of today should have the same control over its borders that the Soviet government exercised over its borders.

But in fact, neither Moscow nor its neighbors would want borders of that type. On the one hand, the Soviet borders were intended to be hermetically sealed, even though in practice they were more porous than many wanted to admit. But now the Russian government and the governments of the other former Soviet republics all want the benefits that flow from more open border arrangements.

Moreover, many in the Russian government argue that there should not be any international barriers on the borders among the Commonwealth of Independent States but only on the external borders of that grouping. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, for example, pledged last week that he would even oppose putting markers on those borders while he was in office.

Unfortunately, that attitude, which implies that Russia is far from accepting the genuine independence of its neighbors, and the increasing tendency of Russian officials to want to impose tariff barriers on goods imported from them, as in the case with Ukraine, has generated in many of these other countries an equal desire to develop their borders as barriers rather than bridges.

Such a trend could undercut trade and hence economic growth throughout the region. Consequently, ever more officials in these countries are pointing out that these states share a common need for well-regulated and mutually-accepted borders. That is because only borders of that type will allow each country to have self-confidence necessary to cooperate with its neighbors.

In short, to paraphrase the poet, good borders here as elsewhere in the world can help make good neighbors. Their absence will almost certainly drive people apart.