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Russia: Embattled Border Guards Prepare To Celebrate 80th Anniversary

  • Simon Saradzhyan

Moscow, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Plagued by poor funding, Russia's Federal Border Guard Service (FPS) has little to celebrate on its 80th anniversary. "The situation is catastrophic," FPS chief Nikolai Bordyuzha told RFE/RL yesterday when asked to comment on funding of his 200,000-strong service, ahead of the May 28 Border Guard Day celebrations. "We lack money to buy food (for soldiers) to say nothing of new armaments," Bordyuzha complained. The federal government, which faces a dire lack of revenues due to poor tax collection and falling oil prices, plans to cut all 1998 budget expenditures by more than one-quarter and FPS' share is no exception. The situation is exacerbated by the State Duma's failure to pass a draft bill that provides for the collection of border-crossing fees from foreigners.

Bordyuzha said the fee was designed to account for 30 percent of the budget this year, but he said FPS still can n-o-t start collecting it. Bordyuzha said he hoped the lower chamber of the parliament passes the draft bill by July before, as he put it, FPS runs out of cash.

The service has already had to borrow 30,000 tons of fuel from the so-called state strategic reserve, which is a wide assortment of products saved to be used in case of war. The fuel is being spent by FPS ships, engaged in the BIO-98, anti-poaching operation currently underway off Russia's Pacific coast. They have already detained 64 vessels, since the beginning of this year, including one Chinese vessel that Russian border guards attacked and seized Monday, killing two and wounding three. The ship was poaching off Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, and tried to get away when a Russian border guard vessel closed in on it.

Russia's Foreign Ministry yesterday issued an official statement, saying Russia "sincerely regretted the human losses," but argued that the shooting was justified.

Bordyuzha said a federal border ship had pursued the Chinese poachers for seven hours and fired warning shots 13 times before finally aiming the gun at the poaching vessel.

Despite poor funding, FPS servicemen have also reportedly caught more than 1,000 people trying to cross the Russian border illegally this year.

Last year, Russian border guards seized 3.6 tons of various drugs, 1,4000 guns and 13,000 rounds of ammunition. They have also deported 3,000 Chinese citizens this year, but thousands more still reside illegally in the Russian Far East.

Speaking at a Moscow press conference, Bordyuzha warned that Russia may lose control over entire swathes of land in the Far East, if the steady flow of illegal migrants into this thinly-populated region is n-o-t stopped. He told reporters that entire areas could break away, if thousands of Chinese illegally residing there are not deported. Officials at the Federal Migration Service also said that, left unchecked, the Chinese population could soar to dominate the Russian Far East by 2030.

"Another 20-30 years of such expansion and Chinese will become the majority... this may lead to (territorial) losses," chief of the service's immigration directorate Ivan Fedotov told RFE/RL Tuesday.

Fedotov said there are already up to 100,000 illegal immigrants from China living in Russia, and that this number continues to grow despite regular raids by Russian law-enforcers. Most Chinese arrive in the Far East on short-stay visas, obtained via travel agencies. Some then either fan out across Russia for better job opportunities, while most settle down in the border areas either to shuttle trade or cultivate land.

Nikolai Leonov, professor at Moscow's State Institute of International Affairs, says Chinese often remain in Russia even after their visas expire, and bribe local police to turn a blind eye.

Having to deal with exterior threats like the illegal immigration, poaching and smuggling, FPS has to fight off interior threats, such as take-over bids by fellow power agencies. In the past, the Defense Ministry top brass have repeatedly stated that they would like to bring border guards under their command. But the most recent threat comes from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, which is the main successor to the KGB, and has about 78,000 servicemen already under its command.

Late last year, the official media described the merger of FSB and FPS as inevitable, and Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, who used to head FSB, said then the merge would be "well-grounded."

Yet, no merge has occurred so far, and Bordyuzha said Tuesday there will be no "mechanical unification" of his service with FSB in the near future.

Formally set up by Ivan the Terrible in 1571, Russian border guards remained independent until the early 1920's, when they got engulfed by the Soviet state's security giant. The Soviet government decreed a Border Guard service on May 28, 1918.

The KGB kept border guards under its wing for some seven decades, until Yeltsin decreed a post-Communist Russia's Federal Border Guard Service. He made that decision in 1993 two years, after starting to dismantle the all-powerful KGB, fearing it would oppose his democratic reforms.

FPS has expanded dramatically under its former chief Andrei Nikolayev to acquire heavy armament, including tanks. The service, which has more than 300 planes, even set up its own pilots academy, counter-intelligence and intelligence branches, as well as adopted an entire program for developing its own fleet to reinforce hundreds of coastal vessels the service already operates.

Since its 1993 breakaway, FPS has grown to about 220,000 servicemen, including 195 generals - compared to a mere 70 they had while still part of the Soviet security monolith.