While Estonia’s modern boundary line with Russia was initially scheduled to be completed by next year, or by 2019 at the latest, work has not been completed on test sections, and even 2020 could prove to be an overly optimistic prognosis.
Minister of internal affairs at the time Hanno Pevkur (Reform Party) said as recently as in November of last year that the government has set itself the ambitious goal of equipping the eastern border with modern infrastructure by the end of Estonia’s anniversary of the republic year. “Of course, a lot of activities are still underway or even ahead of us; however, everyone is doing their best to finish the border in time,” he said.
Politicians have been far less enthusiastic about the prospect of having to comment on progress made this year. The reason is simple: what they have to show falls woefully short of the public’s expectations.
Head of the border guard bureau of the Police and Border Guard Board’s (PPA) Southern Prefecture Tamar Tamm told Postimees that no one has dared promise the border would be completed by next year. “It is possible this was a very-very preliminary plan that was discussed when work on clearing the border of brush first began,” he added. “It was a little too optimistic in any case.”
Tamm said that 2020 has been mentioned as a possible term of completion.
3.2 kilometers by the end of the year
Work is being done. “Two test sections are being constructed, and we definitely plan to get them done this year,” Tamm explained. Both sections measure 1.6 kilometers. The first has seen installation of surveillance equipment and animal barriers, while the second is made up of marshland and serves as a testing ground for development. “A part of the border already corresponds to our vision,” Tamm added. Therefore, we are talking about a few kilometers.
“In other places, we have marshy and soft areas for which financially sensible solutions are still being developed in terms of a patrol route and development of the border,” Tamm continued. There are plenty of swamps and flood plains on the eastern border, while it must be possible to operate patrol vehicles there. A boardwalk would not be enough. “We will either install pontoons or lead the patrol route away from the border to where the soil is more suitable in places like these.”
Studies have been carried out on the test section to determine what lies under the swamp – bog-pools have been found to be eight-nine meters deep in places. “We could just build a great bridge; however, we must consider what is sensible in terms of the state’s wallet,” Tamm said.
All 136 kilometers of the southeastern border must be traversable either by foot or using an all-terrain vehicle in the future.
The border zone has been cleared of brush and trees buy now, and the PPA is looking for service providers to keep the zone clear of vegetation. The border also has some areas that will be swapped with Russia based on the yet unratified border agreement – these future border zones cannot be developed at this time.
Tamm hopes the state will hold a procurement to find a contractor, and that work can start on developing border infrastructure on a broader scale next year.
Politicians talked about a potential cost of €75 million when work on the border began. Tamm said that expenses can be discussed in more detail once the experimental sections are finished – they can be used to calculate the cost of remaining border infrastructure. “I believe that nowhere has construction ended up costing less than initially planned,” the bureau chief added.
Fenced sections of the border will be equipped with barbed wire. A fence will not cover the entire 136 kilometers. “We will erect a fence where it is sensible, while a part of the border will be guarded using other means,” he explained.
“We will look at how to manage costs.”
Tamm’s comments do not reflect the optimism of promises by politicians made a few years ago. Back then, Estonians were promised the most modern border in Europe without compromise. Is the goal now to make do more cheaply?
“No; what I meant was that in a situation where we have a choice between a hugely expensive radar and a slightly less expensive surveillance camera, we will take the camera,” Tamm said. “It is very difficult to build a fence in a swamp, and cheaper and simpler solutions will be found there. The goal is definitely to cover the entire border with technical equipment and have a one hundred percent detection rate of crossings.”
Tamm said that Latvia is also building a fence on its eastern border.