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Opinion: Border infrastructure shouldn't be part of political campaigns

Boundary post indicating the Estonian border.
Boundary post indicating the Estonian border. Source: (PPA)

Estonia no doubt needs a properly equipped eastern border, as it is also on the external border of the European Union and NATO. But the effort to build it can't be used in political campaigns. Internal security and national defense can't turn into a score sheet for the political parties, ERR's Toomas Sildam writes.

Hanno Pevkur (Reform) is likely to be relieved that fate, along with IRL and the Social Democrats pushing Reform out of power in the fall of 2016, has made sure he no longer is Estonia's minister of the interior. If he was, he would have to eat his words now that the Estonian-Russian border will be ready in time for the centennial.

Reform hoped to use border issue in two election campaigns

Just a year and a half ago, Pevkur as minister of the interior said with confidence that the government of Taavi Rõivas (Reform) had "committed to the ambitious goal of completing the infrastructure of the Estonian-Russian border by the end of Estonia's centennial year." Which would be the end of this year.

It has been clear for quite a while now that the border won't get ready so soon. A few years ago, Sven Sester (IRL), who was minister of finance at the time, worried that the project at more than €70 million would be too expensive. At the end of last week we heard that building state-of-the-art infrastructure along the Estonian-Russian border will cost somewhere around €200 million.

At this point it seems that the avalanche of promises three and a half years ago to build the border infrastructure quickly and almost on the cheap was no more than a lightweight political slogan of the Reform Party, aiming for increased support in two parliamentary elections.

But let's have a look at how it all started, on Sept. 5, 2014, when the Russian counterintelligence service, the FSB, lured Eston Kohver, an official of Estonia's Internal Security Service (ISS), across the border. Kohver thought he was meeting with a source.

The FSB kidnapped Kohver. About a year later, he made it back to Estonia after being exchanged for convicted traitor Aleksei Dressen. Both ISS and FSB made use of the fact that the Estonian border in the southeast runs through forests and undergrowth, and at the time was hardly marked at all.

Initial marking of temporary control line in 2000

The border, or the temporary control line to be politically correct, wasn't specially marked or maintained on the Estonian side for the reason that the two countries still don't have a border treaty in place. The treaty would specify where exactly the border is.

Only then-Minister of the Interior Tarmo Loodus (IRL) went against the policy of not marking the border, when in 2000 he had yellow plastic warning signs put up with the warning Seis! Eesti piir! ("Stop! Border of Estonia!"). The reason for it at the time were some 80 mushroom pickers who had inadvertently crossed over into Russia somewhere in the Värska area.

When then-commander of the Värska border station, Lt. Andres Oimar, drove the first of these posts into the sandy ground somewhere along the bank of the Piusa river, the Estonian-Russian border was marked for the first time.

The Border Guard placed some 5,500 warning signs at intervals of roughly 100 m. Then-commander of the Southeast district, Maj. Rein Orav, called it a historic event: "This is the first step in the marking of the border to Russia," he told paper Postimees at the time. "We are finally able to mark the line where Estonian authority begins, and where it ends."

External border of both EU and NATO

Following Kohver's kidnapping, among others it was the politicians who focused on the issue of making the border visible. On top of that, the 2015 parliamentary elections were approaching. The ministers began shouting into TV cameras about the overgrown border and promised to get it fixed up just as determinedly as Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas when he staged himself walking down the runway at Ämari Air Base, NATO fighters flying overhead.

Estonia isn't Hungary, which is happy to defend itself against the influx of refugees from Serbia by simply putting up a barbed-wire fence. Estonia's fence is riddled with surveillance equipment and sensors, and surveyed by our drones. Such was the €70-million promise.

Like mentioned above, by now the price tag is more than two and a half times what it was back then. Building this border of dreams will now also take several years longer than planned. Now, with the campaign for the 2019 parliamentary elections coming up, no party will be able to claim the issue for itself. Though it would appear that doing just that was one of the things Rõivas' government once hoped for.

Estonia no doubt needs a properly built eastern border, as it is also on the external border of the European Union and NATO. But it can't be built as part of a political campaign. Internal security and national defense can't be turned into a score sheet for the political parties.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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