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Politicians disagree on whether cost of eastern border project worth it

A member of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) at the Estonian-Russian border. If Mr. Riisalu had his way, such professionals would be superseded by recruits straight out of training.
A member of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) at the Estonian-Russian border. If Mr. Riisalu had his way, such professionals would be superseded by recruits straight out of training. Source: Police and Border Guard Board

Estonia's eastern border project, which has nearly quadrupled in cost compared to initial estimates, has politicians questioning whether such an expensive project is necessary after all.

As a rule, parliamentary parties generally do not argue publicly over national defence-related issues. The construction of the country's eastern border, however, has ended up an exception to the rule, and Free Party chairman Andres Herkel, Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) deputy chairman Martin Helme and Pro Patria (Isamaa) Party Helir-Valdor Seeder are all interested in seeing cheaper solutions.

Initial estimates put the cost of the eastern border project at €80 million, but by early 2018, calculations had changed and the cost had ballooned to nearly €200 million. Developments on the construction market and infrastructure maintenance costs were likewise recently added in, and the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) now believes that the eastern border will cost a total of €320 million through 2026.

Herkel said on Tuesday that cheaper solutions should be sought that could be implemented more quickly than the current project. Helme, meanwhile, was sharper in his criticism, and found that instead of building border infrastructure, Estonia should just hire more border guards.

"An expensive thing is being built that will not be guarded," Helme said, adding that things were currently being done backward. "Currently I can see clearly here that the state budget is just being milked for money via various procurements and then we are told that this will increase security. Actually it doesn't."

Seeder doubts whether expensive border worth it

According to Seeder, the coalition parties aren't sure either whether the current border plans will be seen through to completion.

"The Ministry of the Interior as an authority has very clearly and robustly tabled this project and wants funding for it in the amount of the most recent project, whose cost totals over €300 million," explained the Pro Patria chairman. "I dare say that I am one of those people who has a number of questions, like whether there are any alternative, better solutions."

He did not agree, however, that it would be reasonable to hire more border guards, as it is difficult enough already to find sufficient labour.

"But whether it is necessary to build roads and such things everywhere through bogs and along the length of the border — this is a question that I believe will remain," Seeder said. "And I believe that, in the course of the actual construction of the border, this project will definitely be re-evaluated, and in a more rational direction, I hope."

According to Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt (SDE), however, there are no arguments at the state government level regarding the content of the border project itself. Regarding the taking advantage of natural obstacles, he noted that this is being done anyway.

"132 kilometres is actually the entire eastern border," Anvelt eplained. "We are talking about building infrastructure along 105 kilometres. We can already see that nearly 30 kilometres are covered by nature. Another thing is that we can never allow such situations where we build a Potemkin village — that there where people move everything is attractive and proper, and as soon as you hit some woods, then there's nothing. The other side would surely take advantage of this."

The fact that they are planning to continue moving forward with the current project does not mean, however, that various other solutions haven't been considered, added the minister.

One option that had been considered, for example, was going the route that Latvia did with its own eastern border. "That we just put up your average residential fence that is two metres tall, and put barbed wire on top," he described. "And along it we clear a path for foot patrols which in nature may not even withstand an ATV. Latvia is currently building bit by bit, and 20 kilometres costs around €8 million. But this assumes something else — this assumes that we have to at least double the number of border guards."

Such a manned border would end up even more expensive, he added. While this is essentially the solution proposed by both Helme and Herkel, and Helme believes that hiring a large number of border guards would save money compared to infrastructure construction costs, Anvelt's calculations found the opposite to be the case. "And wage pressure is actually considerably higher in Estonia than in Latvia. Overall, I think that this would be much more costly in the long run."

Kallas sees need for border, still concerned by price tag

Reform Party chairwoman Kaja Kallas said that Estonia definitely needs a secure eastern border, which is likewise an external border of NATO and the EU alike. 

"It's clear that investments must be made into its construction," she said. "What nonetheless concerns me is that the cost of the construction of the border has more than tripled compared to the originally quoted price, and this inevitably makes one question how carefully taxpayer money is actually being counted."

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) said last week that there is no going back on the ambitiousness of the planned border infrastructure. In addition to agreeing upon what kind of eastern border Estonia wants, however, an agreement must also be reached regarding where they money will come from for its construction.

"Considering all of the threats we are currently facing, and considering that this will be the border between Estonia and the Russian Federation, this border must be secure, it must be modern, and it must be well-equipped digitally and in terms of information technology," Ratas said at a government press conference last week.

"Even just the fact that under €100 million has been earmarked in the state budget strategy for the project, whose cost exceeds €300 million, demonstrates the fact that this matter has not been resolved anywhere," Seeder commented.

This means that over the next eight years, the Estonian state must come up with an additional over €200 million. Anvelt, however, mentioned that the hope is that at least part of the funding will come from the EU.

"In the next budget period, Europe is going to significantly increase support to various security and defence policy activities, including the strengthening of borders," Anvelt explained. "The European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex has likewise said that we have a pretty good border which could be an example for the EU."

In conclusion, Anvelt noted that while the entire border should be complete by 2026, the first few longer stretches thereof should be completed within the next couple of years already.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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