Fencing Off the War in Ukraine: Belarus Strengthens Its Borders

Image: Euroradio.fm

On 4 September, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree establishing security zones alongside the border with Russia.

The measure targets illegal migration, drug trafficking, as well as the illicit movement of goods across the border. Until now, the Belarus-Russia border was unsecured due to the special relationship between Minsk and Moscow.

Russian Gazeta.Ru said the decision was due to Belarus's attempts to “flirt with the EU.” The newspaper speculated that Lukashenka may be opposed to the Eurasian Economic Union. Yet the reason for the change in border policy may be much simpler.

Minsk worries about instability on the borderlands between Ukraine and Russia. The conflict and political instability in Ukraine already involves illicit arms and refugee movements in the neighbouring regions of Ukraine and Russia.

Even once the war ends, unrecognised states teeming with criminal activity and prone to instability are likely to emerge just across the border.

Independence: Time to Build Fences

Establishing border security zones with Russia is a final step in setting firm borders for the country. Independent Belarus inherited from Soviet times only one full-fledged state border – with Poland, established by the Soviet-Polish treaty of 1945. Other borders had existed only as administrative markers and required boundary delimitation and demarcation once the Soviet Union collapsed.

First came borders with the Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia needed these borders more than Belarus did due to their aspirationsto join the EU. Belarus's border with Latvia was by far the easiest to establish, in part because it is the shortest of all Belarusian borders. In that case, both countries simply revived the pre-1940 Latvian border with Soviet Belarus and Poland. The delimitation of the Latvia-Belarus border was completed in 1994 and its demarcation in 2006.

Belarus's border with Lithuania was a harder case, and some disputes emerged. First, Belarusian Foreign Minister Piatro Krauchanka made an ambiguous statement interpreted by some, including the New York Times, as a claim to Lithuanian capital and adjoining areas. Later, negotiations suffered from disputes concerning some border railway facilities. Nevertheless, the delimitation was successfully completed in 1995, and the demarcation in 2006.

Russia and the EU Work toward the same Goal

The European Union helped to establish the new borders between Belarus and the Baltic states. Belarus's boundary demarcation with Lithuania and Latvia cost $13.5m, and the EU's TACIS Programme provided a third of that sum.

The money was put to good use. In June, talking on the Belarusian ONT TV channel Maira Mora, the Head of EU Delegation to Belarus, said

The Belarusian border with the EU is one of the safest, best and strongest of the EU's borders. [...] If we compare the rates of illegal migration, [whereas] in many other border areas more than 50,000 such cases happen, a mere 1,700 occur at the Belarusian border with the EU.

Maira Mora hailed this as an achievement by Belarusian border guards.

According to a 1995 agreement with Russia, Moscow also began to help Belarus with material and technical supplies for Belarusian border guards, including manufacturing, deployment and repairing arms and equipment. It also shared with Minsk the costs of constructing a border with Lithuania and Latvia - Russia provided almost 80% of the funds.

The borders halted various illicit activities, including the large-scale smuggling of metal, but also limited interaction between citizens of neighbouring countries.

No Money – No Border

The border with Ukraine was next in line. Minsk and Kyiv signed a border agreement in May 1997. However, the border issue became instantly entangled with the problem of Ukraine's indebtedness to Belarus. Minsk demanded the payment on debts from Kyiv, delaying the ratification of the border agreement for thirteen years, until April 2010.

In November 2013, demarcation of the more than 1,000 km long Belarus-Ukrainian border began. It will cost about €10m and will be finished by 2020.

An official of the Belarusian State Border Committee told UNIAN news agency in November 2013 that Belarus and Ukraine hoped for international financial aid to help them demarcate their joint border. “After all, establishing clear boundaries and maintaining control and order on them mean [making] direct investments into the security of the European Union.”

In June, the EU Delegation to Belarus announced that soon Minsk would get €3bn to strengthen its border with Ukraine. This is a difficult task as the border with Ukraine is extremely porous. The EU probably would have given the money regardless of developments in Eastern Ukraine this summer.

Importantly, controlling the Belarus-Ukrainian border will prevent the movement of militants and weapons between Russia and Ukraine via Belarus. Suppressing such activities serves Minsk's own interests.

Is There a Border with Russia?

The border with Russia is a different story. In 1994-95, Belarus and Russia signed three major agreements on border security. Both countries are obliged to guard their external borders and keep each other's border security interests in mind. This means that Belarusian border guards ensure the security of the Russian state border by guarding Belarusian state borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and vice versa.

After this agreement came into effect in May 1995, Belarusians stopped controlling the border with Russia. The delimitation of the Russia-Belarus border never took place. Russian border guards, however, sometimes conduct passport control on Russian-Belarusian border.

They have good reasons to do so. After all, a Belarusian visa – and even a residence permit – does not allow its holder to enter Russia. Yet because the border is largely open, foreiners who have arrived to Belarus can easily travel to Russia.

Some countries (like Georgia) have no visa requirements with Belarus, yet have to obtain a visa to travel to Russia, which creates an opportunity to misuse the open Russia-Belarus border.

Even though Minsk is unlikely to treat the Russia-Belarus border with the same attention as its borders with Poland or the Baltic states, the recent decision to increase border control is nevertheless an important one. Lukashenka has always treated the borderless regime with Russia as a personal achievement. Therefore, his move to increase border control reflects serious concerns about the recent regional developments.

Whatever the reasons, Belarus is an independent country that needs borders. As the instability in the neighbourhood increases, securing state borders is becoming of vital importance.

The EU monetary contributions toward Belarus's boder management can help Belarusians maintain the security of the Belarusian state. As Ukraine's example shows, the absence of a functioning state and porous borders can lead to serious problems.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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