Trouble at the Estonian border
In light of the recent abduction of Estonia’s Internal Security Service official Eston Kohver by Russia, as well as Russia’s aggression in east Ukraine, Estonia's public attention was directed at the country's eastern border with Russia. In a shocking discovery, it was disclosed that of the 130 km long border between the two countries, only 11 km is properly demarcated.
The increased attention at the border came after an Estonian counterintelligence agent Eston Kohver was allegedly abducted by Russia's FSB on 5 September, along an overgrown forested stretch of the border.
After the incident, Estonian media and public turned their focus to the conditions at the border and found that despite the fact it is also the eastern border of the European Union and NATO, the Estonian border with Russia is not properly marked or guarded.
Eesti Päevaleht disclosed last week that most of the 130 km border line is covered by thicket and brushes and is not properly demarcated. In an almost absurd development, some border guards have taken things at their own hands and started to build boardwalks along the border, to ensure effective patrolling. One of the guards has even mobilised his tractor, otherwise used for his private farm, to clean up a stretch on the Estonian border with Russia.
The Estonian politicians and government officials admit that the situation on the border is unsatisfactory, but argue that is due to the unratified border treaty between Estonia and Russia. The current border is a de facto line, not ratified by treaty between the two countries.
Since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia and Russia were for 20 years in dispute over Estonia’s attempts to restore its border under the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, according to which Estonia could claim more territory from modern-day Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union forcibly altered the borders, after occupying Estonia during the course of Second World War.
Russia, however, was in no rush to return the territory belonging to Estonia under the treaty. Thus, the border negotiations were dragging along until 2014. Early this year, just before the crisis in Crimea and east Ukraine started, Estonia and Russia finally reached to an agreement and Estonia gave up its territorial claims on the Russian side of the border. Unfortunately the treaty has been pending ratification since. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said this week he hoped that Russia's Duma would begin the border treaty ratification process shortly.
In the meantime, the border has just marking posts on the Russian side and few warning signs, as well as cameras, on the Estonian side. For a casual walker, however, most of the border looks like a normal forested area – there’s no high fence or wall, nor many visible border guards.
Tarmo Kõuts, a former director-general of the Estonian Border Guard and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, has also expressed a deep concern about the situation. In an interview with Delfi last week, Kõuts said that there is clearly a need to have "more boots on the ground" to guard the border. He cited that in light of the events in Crimea and east Ukraine where "little green men" from Russia unexpectedly crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border, it is absolutely crucial to not just make sure that the border would be impenetrable, but that it would also look impassable for those with hostile intentions.
After the so-called "Kohver incident" and disclosure about the appalling conditions on the border, the Estonian government rushed into action and is trying to do its best in assuring Estonians that increasing the security of the Estonian border and ensuring national security is a top priority.
Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, Minister of the Interior Hanno Pevkur, and Minister of the Environment Keit Pentus-Rosimannus agreed that in order to complete the Estonian-Russian border line, it is most important to begin with the clean-up of the border line and it will be carried out by the State Forest Management Centre.
According to Hanno Pevkur, 200,000 euros have been allocated in order to clean up the border line and buy equipment for the border guards. Two million euros have been further directed towards the strengthening of the border. Additional technical alarms, night vision devices, personal protective equipment and weapons for the border guards have also been purchased.
The first step was taken on Tuesday – the Soviet-era Makarov handguns, currently used by the Estonian order guards, were replaced with German-made Walther P99Q weapons.