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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- 'The Face Of The State'

Washington, 1 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for improving the effectiveness of state control over the country's borders in order to prevent the influx of illegal drugs and to improve relations with Russia's neighbors.

But the Russian leader has stressed that the new border institutions will be built in correspondence with international law and will not lead to the creation of a "new iron curtain."

Speaking to the Russian Security Council on Wednesday, Putin complained that Russian officials at every level have "spoken a lot but done little on the state level to create a new image of the state border" -- one very different from that most people in Russia and abroad had in the past.

But if Putin stressed the need for building a democratic border, other officials at the Security Council session made remarks that suggest Moscow may now seek to have far greater control over its frontiers than at any time since the end of the USSR.

Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov said that Putin's injunction means that the Russian authorities must work quickly to provide better social support for border guards. And while he too said that the new border will look very different than the Soviet-era one, he added that "the border was, is, and will be the face of the state."

Ivanov's deputy Oleg Chernov was even more blunt in his assessment of what needs to be done. He told the meeting that "due to the absence of the necessary border infrastructure, the Russian border remains transparent," especially with its Central Asian neighbors from which illegal drugs frequently come.

And Federal Border Guards chief Konstantin Totsky said that it was absolutely necessary to come up with what he called a proper border infrastructure, a reference to Putin's call for "defense in depth" along the frontier rather than a single border line as during Soviet times.

Totsky also attempted during this week's meeting to put the planned cuts in the number of border guards in context. Earlier, the Security Council had ordered a reduction of 15,000 border troops and of 1,000 civilian personnel involved in guarding the country's borders.

Such cuts, Totsky argued, may actually improve Moscow's control of the Russian border: "It's better to have one operational vessel than three broken ones," he said, "and to have one fully equipped border outpost than three understaffed ones."

Whether Putin's directive or the decisions of the Russian Security Council will be fully implemented remains uncertain, but both Putin's concerns and the statements of Russian officials at this meeting call attention to a problem that all the post-Soviet states continue to wrestle with.

Each of them has had to face the challenge of converting internal administrative lines into international state borders to affirm their own sovereignty and to protect their citizens without taking steps that cut them off from traditional trading partners or exacerbating tensions with them or with others.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in these countries and the West urged a minimalist approach to border development. They hoped for continuing cooperation among these states and believed that money spent on erecting new border institutions could be better spent on other things.

The expanding flow of drugs and illegal immigrants across their frontiers, growing nationalism in many of these countries, and a dawning recognition that well-constructed and administered borders can do more to promote good ties than the absence of such institutions, however, are convincing ever more governments across the region to move to improve border security.

But because the only border model many of these regimes are familiar with is the Soviet one, there is a growing risk that efforts to improve border controls in some of these countries could lead to the resuscitation of one of the worst features of the USSR -- even as those involved in this process deny to themselves and to others that that is what they have in mind.