In recent months, in Belarus the discussion about the introduction of border controls at the border with Russia was reactivated. In addition to the traditional arguments related primarily to ideological moments, supporters of the establishment of the protection of the eastern border are paying attention to the fact that the overwhelming volume of opiates and synthetic drugs gets in our country through transit from Russian territory. In addition, more than 80% of the illegal supply of alcohol in Belarus is provided at the expense of smuggling from Russia. At the same time a quarter of a alcohol turnover (i.e. around USD 500 million per year), is from “shady business”. Given that about 50% of the alcohol price is formed by excise, the annual budget losses make up at least a quarter of a billion USD (source).
In addition to these arguments there’s also Russian-Ukrainian war factor. In the context of the unpredictability of the Kremlin’s policy almost 1,300 kilometres of unguarded border in the east pose the eventual threat to the existence of the state.
However, all of the mentioned above is big politics (and economics). And you can’t see a particular person behind it. It seems that any decision related to the format of the protection of the eastern border (the very need of protection of border with Russia shouldn’t be debated in principle), must be made taking into account the interests of the 17 administrative districts of Vitsebsk, Mahiliou and Homel regions, that are situated near the border, and with the participation of representatives of local authorities, businesses and the public.
In order to understand the situation, we visited some of the border areas of the Mahiliou region. Of course, each region has its own specifics, and it takes time to get full understanding of the situation. Therefore, this analysis is sufficiently subjective.
Passport of the region
Border zone of Mahiliou region consists of seven administrative districts: Horatski, Mstsislausky, Krychauski, Klimavichski, Khotsimski, Kastyukovichski, Krasnapolski. Historically, most of them belonged to the Duchy of Mstsislau, and later during the time of Great Duchy of Lithuania — Mstsislau province.
Despite the well-developed building materials industry, the region is lagging behind in development. The level of actual income of the majority of the local population is two or more times (!) lower than the national average. Productivity of agriculture is also below the average for Belarus. But it’s necessary to note that the actual production of the grain may be higher than the officially declared. This is connected to its illegal export to Russia, where purchase prices are often higher.
Transport infrastructure is maintained in satisfactory condition. Visually, the flow of trucks on the roads of the region is not high. Highways aren’t crowded, which indicates a low/lack of economic activity in the region.
The region covers more than 8.5 thousand sq. km, a large part of the territory was withdrawn from economic circulation as a result of the Chernobyl accident.
The depopulation of the area is a problem. It is connected with both natural population decline and leaving because of the unfavourable socio-economic situation of border regions and their unclear development prospects. It’s suffice to note that just Khotsimski district lost more than 20% of the population, including 10% of urban and almost a third of the rural over the period of 2004-2015. Official data indicates the presence of 175 thousand residents of the region. But their actual number is lower. It should be noted that these areas have suffered heavy human losses in World War II, from which the region hasn’t recovered. In the postwar period outflow of population was caused by the urbanization policy, despite the fact that the only relatively large city is Horki with a population of just over 33 thousand people. It didn’t become a centre of attraction for the rural population.
The region can be divided into two sub-regions: the northern (north-east of Mahiliou region) and southern (southeast of the region). The division is based on the Decree № 235 “On the socio-economic development of south-eastern region of the Mahiliou region”. The document was adopted with a view to sustainable development of Klimavichski, Kastsiukovichski, Krasnapolski, Krichauski, Slauharadski, Khotsimski and Cherykauski districts — the districts of the region.
It is interesting to note that the region has two of the three independent socio-political media of Mahiliou region.
Socio-economic situation. The most common level of wages is around 2.5 million BYR (approx. USD 250).
Industry is poorly developed, the crisis has affected the majority of existing enterprises.
Due to the large number of nonresident students in the city of Horki, where Belarusian state academy of agriculture situated, the prices obviously don’t match the level of residents’ income. At the same time, food prices are 5-15% higher than in Minsk. Comparatively high prices have negative impact on the quality of life of local people.
The level of service remains a Soviet one and is low in comparison with the western regions of the country. This is true even of the public sector, which seemingly should have common standards. A large part of trade organizations and public catering enterprises stop their work at 6 P.M. This may be connected with the work culture and small demand for services.
The introduction of certification for individual entrepreneurs had negative impact on the socio-economic situation. As a result, many of them ceased activity. The population was deprived of access to goods of the lower price range. Shop-tourism to Smolensk appeared as a response to this. The results of ill-conceived decision of the authorities can be seen in four points: the part of local residents engaged in individual trading lost income; outflow of the currency to Russia has increased; part of the tax revenues was lost; effective demand for local services reduced. And of course, it causes irritation of the local population.
Due to the presence of Belarusian state academy of agriculture, in the subregion the proportion of people with higher education is high. The local labour market is limited, many of the graduates of the academy are working on low positions.
A significant part of the local population depends on earnings in Russia. Given the crisis in Russia the level of actual unemployment has sharply risen. As a result, some employees are forced to continue their career in Russia even for smaller salaries. In general local population is lawful. Readiness to work in Russia for smaller wages besides the economic factors can be explained by the need to pay tax on “social parasitism”.
Public security. The situation with criminality is normal, factor of neighbourhood with Russia hasn’t noticeable effect on it. Conflicts between citizens of Russia and Belarus are of everyday nature and aren’t large scale.
Cross-border crime is manifested in the form of smuggling of low-quality or counterfeit alcohol, petroleum products (which are cheaper in Russia) and drugs. However the subregion is a transit area, not the main market for alcohol and drugs.
Psychological situation. The total degree of discontent is on the rise, but still there are no signs of protest sentiments. This is connected with the practice of the past 15 years when a short-term decline was then followed by economic growth and welfare. Subjective impression: people are not yet aware of the fact that the current crisis is systemic and therefore prolonged.
Socio-political situation. Contrary to the expectations, the Russian influence in the public life of the subregion is virtually absent. There are almost no markers of “Russian world” in the form of so-called St. George (or Vlasov) ribbons, which seems surprising after Minsk.
In general, the social life of the subregion, outside the state activity, is hardly noticeable. The present democratic organizations are small. A number of political parties are actually represented by single activists.
Independent media. In the current unfavourable conditions the activity of the only socio-political independent media in the subregion it is successful. Newspaper “UzHorak” in fact acts as a mediator between the community groups who are unhappy with problems in the subregion, and local authorities. The difficulties stem from the fact that the authorities often view the newspaper as an enemy rather than a tool for identifying problems at an early stage. Obviously there is serious potential for development of the newspaper.
Socio-economic situation. The subregion is a relatively industrial area. Here the production of construction materials, food processing and manufacturing industry based on local raw materials are quite developed.
The level of hidden unemployment is high, which it is connected with the plight of the local industry and the massive return of local residents from Russia, where they were working.
Wages of about 3-3.5 million BYR is considered as good.
Low purchasing power of the population naturally implies a low level of service. The retail chain is dominated by food products of lower price range, and thus the lower quality. Industrial goods are also mainly low-quality but cheap.
Shop-tours to Russia are wide-spread. Mainly food products, fuel and lubricants are imported.
Existing restrictions in Russia had a positive impact on the development of the local gambling industry, where a significant part of the clients are Russians.
On the basis of the local raw material base the sub-region has a developed base of building materials. Unfortunately, this sector of the local industry is in crisis. The reasons are both objective and subjective. The first are related to the general state of the market. The second – to the quality of modernization of the cement industry carried out with the participation of Chinese experts (which, to put it mildly, does not meet expectations), as well as to the quality of the current management of the enterprises. Regarding the latter, it’s necessary to note that in order to resolve the doubts of the conscientiousness and professionalism of the managers it’s necessary to conduct a comprehensive audit of cement enterprises. And this audit compulsorily should be carried out with the participation of representatives of the central apparatus of law enforcement agencies. There are doubts about the ability of regional authorities to organize such an audit.
Decree № 235 “On socio-economic development of southeastern part of Mahiliou region” hasn’t brought any positive outcome to the present time.
Public security. The situation with criminality is controlled, factor of neighbourhood with Russia hasn’t significant impact on it. Cross-border crime is manifested in the form of smuggling of petroleum products, low-quality or counterfeit alcohol and drugs. For the last two positions the subregion is a transit area and not the end-use area. Scrap metals and grains are illegally exported from Belarus to Russia. This is due to higher purchase prices in the neighbouring country.
Activity of law-enforcement and controlling bodies of Belarus on the border with Russia is periodically observed. However, such activities are not of a permanent nature, rather it is about special operations.
Socio-political situation. Local democratic organizations are small. And there are no pro-Russian organizations at all. Externally, Russia’s influence can’t be seen, the corresponding attributes are virtually absent.
Independent media. In the subregion there is one socio-political newsletter. In general, there is a potential for the formation of a regional information resource on its basis. This conclusion follows from the objective results of the activity: the presence of an established team and distribution system; the presence of a recognizable brand; credibility among the local population; recognition as a trustworthy source of information by local authorities, including law enforcement agencies and special services.
The very statement of a question of the introduction of controls at the border with Russia is correct. In this case, it is not dictated by the bilateral political relations, but by rational interest. Losses of the state budget from the illegal import of alcohol amount to about USD 250 million per year; the total losses in the legal turnover – to about USD 500 million. The damage caused by the flow of drugs from Russia couldn’t be assessed due to the absence of a method to do this. There is no reliable data on the extent of smuggling of petroleum products. Obviously, they are mainly imported by local residents for personal use.
At the same time the experience of border protection in the Baltic states and Ukraine suggests that the arrangement of the Belarusian-Russian border will cost about USD 260 million and further about USD 60-70 million annually (source). Thus, just on the basis of usual interest in ensuring budget revenues the establishment of the border control seems rational.
However, simplification of the issue is dangerous and can lead to social upheaval: the dependence of low-income groups, which include the majority of the inhabitants of the border areas of Mahiliou region, from access to cheap goods from Russia is critical. It simply allows many people to survive in the situation of such low incomes.
With regard to the situation in a given region it is appropriate to break steps to organize the protection of the eastern border into three groups:
— Immediate steps that can be implemented in a few months, will not entail significant costs and quickly give a specific result, including financial one;
— Measures of economic development of the border areas with the goal to meet the effective demand of residents of Russian border areas;
— A direst stage of the organization of border protection.
The exception may be a situation of aggressive actions on the part of Russia, which will require an urgent response. Currently, however, the probability of such situation is small.
Immediate measures. The immediate measures should be aimed at strengthening the operational capacity of law enforcement agencies and bodies of State security committee in the border areas. It is necessary to strengthen the local units through the expansion of the apparatus of the criminal police, increase the number of State security committee interdistrict departments and refocus their work from political investigation to economic security, fight against organized crime and corruption. In total it’s about the introduction of additional 100-110 units in the local district departments of internal affairs and up to 25 units in the State security committee interdistrict departments, which can be done in the framework of optimization of the departments’ structure.
In addition, in order to prevent corruption and strengthen the capacity of local law enforcement bodies it makes sense on a rotating basis to send operative groups of internal affairs bodies and the State security committee from other regions to the border areas for the purpose of exercising control in the ways of communication.
With the use of the capacity of local civil organizations it’s necessary to take measures of engineering nature to eliminate the possibility for vehicles to cross the border with Russia without using the roads controlled by law enforcement agencies.
It’s necessary to ensure the possibility of selective screening of passengers and baggage in railway and road transport with the help of dog experts. In the first case, the inspection can be carried out while the train is doing its way from the first railway station in Belarus to the nearest major station – just like customs and border control in the train Minsk-Vilnius-Minsk.
Economic development of the region. There is considerable potential in the field of agriculture, tourism and services. Regarding the industrial development of the region the problem is the lack of a clear understanding of what kind of production or industry can serve as points of growth.
Services can be developed with the expectation of involvement of effective demand on the part of the inhabitants of the neighbouring Russian regions. In this case, the leading role can be played by the provision of health and educational services. This will require serious additional expenditures for the local health care, higher and secondary special education, which in any case will be useful at least in terms of improving the quality of life of local people.
Obviously, it’s necessary to take steps that would make import of petroleum products from Russia irrational. The only way seems to be a decrease of the cost of fuel on the eastern border, and the gradual increase of its cost moving to the west and north-west of the country and to the border with the EU. However, any decision on this matter should be taken only after the determination of the volume of illegal import of petroleum products from Russia. Currently, there is no even approximate estimates in this regard. Perhaps the scale of the problem is not so great and it is just a local issue.
Decree №235 should be reviewed and supported by specific financial resources, and not just by wishful thinking. According to the Belarusian officials, there is an access to the Chinese loans on reasonable terms. At the same time promoting the development of border areas of Mahiliou region should be a point for cooperation with the European Union, for which the security of its eastern (and our western and north-western) borders has become a fixed idea. Here we are talking about the need to get “long” loan at low interest rates.
The immediate protection of the eastern border. Depending on the status of regional security we can speak of one of the two modes of protection: police or military one. In this case, the decision will be made on the basis of the future situation and forecasts of its development.
At the moment the organization of the police protection of the eastern border appears to be more rational.
The main objectives of introducing border controls are the following:
— The prevention and suppression of offenses in the neighbouring territories of the two countries;
— Prevention of uncontrolled movement of people across the border;
— Raising the level of awareness of the security situation at the adjacent territory;
— Creation of preconditions for the introduction, if necessary, a full border controls throughout the border.
The systems of the eastern border security, which is based on a specialized unit of the main law enforcement agency — the Ministry of Internal Affairs, seems to be the best option. It can include the Border Police Service, which will be directly under the Minister. The main task of the Border Police (hereinafter referred BP) will be, if briefly, the maintenance of the border and cross-border security.
The main functions of the BP are:
— Control and protection of the Belarusian-Russian state border;
— The organization of inspection of vehicles, goods and documents of persons crossing the border in both directions;
— Suppression of attempts of illegal border crossing or transporting objects through it;
— Detection and detention of persons, vehicles and other property wanted;
— Supervision over the observance of the rules of foreigners’ staying in Belarus;
— Control of compulsory insurance of liability of owners of vehicles entering Belarus;
— Monitoring the area adjacent to the border on both sides;
— Assisting other law enforcement agencies and authorities;
— Examination / participation in examination on the facts of the offenses;
— Monitoring of the observance the rules of entry, exit and transit of foreign residents.
The detailed research on the issue can be found in the report “Organization of protection of Belarusian-Russian border” (source).