Opinion: State hinting it's time to cut corners on Estonia's eastern border

Even broken up across a period of several years, a total price tag of €320 million for a modern Estonian-Russian border seems to be too much for a government struggling with budget issues. And so now Estonia has to start looking for corners to cut from the original plans and lean on the EU for as much support as possible, writes journalist Toomas Sildam.

The ministers of the Centre Party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa held a Cabinet meeting at the Piusa Border Guard Station in Southeastern Estonia on Thursday. Prior to their meeting, they would visit the Estonian-Russian border, which is currently only demarcated largely by yellow warning signs and some fencing.

The plan to construct a technologically advanced 21st century border with an initial price tag of €320 million through 2026, was approved by Jüri Ratas' first government last August. Now it is cutting off the oxygen supply of his current Cabinet's budget.

EKRE's leaders, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme and Minister of Finance Martin Helme, have promised to build the border for cheaper, without the "bells and whistles" — hinting at a plan to cut back the border's technological surveillance solutions. Auditor General Janar Holm has likewise recommended reviewing initial border plans and weighing alternative options.

The Estonian-Russian border is 338.6 kilometers long; 76.7 kilometers of this runs along the Narva River, 126.3 kilometers along Lakes Peipus and Lämmijärv, and 135.6 kilometers on dry ground. The cost of this land border accounts for half of total border costs along Estonia's eastern border.

What "bells and whistles" might be cut from this border project? No final decisions have yet been made, but various ideas have been offered up at discussions regarding cost savings.

The initial design of Estonia's eastern border infrastructure. Source: PPA

Plans thus far have called for the installation of a double fence along Estonia's 135 kilometer land border with Russia. This of course includes a higher fence that would prevent or at least slow the movement of people illegally crossing the border and transporting contraband. But there is also a wildlife fence, which would keep moose, badgers, wolves and other wildlife away from the border, preventing them from tripping sensors and keeping larger animals from possibly destroying the "actual" border.

Fragmented info suggests that it is the wildlife fence that might be cut from plans. This would save millions of euros.

Some access roads to swampy parts of the border may be cut as well, as these areas are difficult to access for contraband-movers and illegal border crossers anyway. But savings here would allegedly be negligible.

But the border fence alone won't guard or defend anything. For that, you need either a lot of men, or modern technology.

Even if we managed to pay them, however, hundreds of new border guards would cost taxpayers more budget money than modern monitoring techology.

While Ministers Mart and Martin Helme are skeptical, to put it lightly, of the EU, it is nonetheless the its fund for the strengthening of the EU's external border that they hope to tap for €30-40 million for the purchase of stationary and mobile monitoring equipment. Just for comparison, the Finnish government plans to allocate its own border guard an additional €50 million for the purchase of more monitoring equipment.

We can't guard borders by tracking footprints anymore. A high-tech border means knowing what is going on at the border, who is there, and why.

Our Border Guard currently has around a dozen simple drones in use for observation flights, but in the future, the hope is to flex some serious drone muscle in the future. "The future," in this case, means over the course of several years, not all at once — and waiting for advancements in technology in order to get the best possible solutions.

Ultimately, the government to visit Estonia's eastern border today has the opportunity to apply two suggestions made by Auditor General Janar Holm in May.

For one, "The eastern border must be fixed up and built out — there is no doubt about it. The border cannot be recognizable on a map alone. The National Audit Office has not called into question the fact that the constructed border must be modern..."

A sovereign nation must know where their border is, and they must be capable of maintaining control over it.

And the auditor general's other suggestion to the ministers: "But I cannot possibly agree with the fact that there is just one possible solution for the construction of the land border. ...In the case of such a big investment and in a situation in which the project has significantly increased in cost over the course of the process, questions regarding whether and to what extent performance would be affected if the volume of some border constructions was reduced cannot be considered superfluous."

In case the ministers should start to get a little carried away with their cuts, the opinion of a professional border guard as well: "Of course something can be cut, something can be reduced, and something can be delayed. But I very much hope that the cheaper-than-planned construction of the eastern border doesn't turn into a situation akin to Tallinn-Tartu Highway being expanded to a four-lane highway from Kose onward, with nice 2+2 lanes but....  it's paved with gravel."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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