SALCININKAI DISTRICT, Lithuania – Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite expects just over 100 kilometers of patrol trail along the border with Belarus to be set up by the end of this year.
"The first stage has started and 10 million euros have been earmarked for it," she told reporters on Monday. "We expect to complete these works by the end of this year."
The second phase, worth 40 million euros, will involve installing another 250 kilometers, and the third phase, the most difficult one, will be carried out in the marshy areas of the border, according to the minister.
"We will do our best to maximize that infrastructure," she said.
Rustamas Liubajevas, commander of the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service (SBGS), told reporters after his visit to Kurmelionys, a village in the district of Salcininkai, that the first phase of the project focuses on places which are badly in need of repair.
The patrol trail will be up to 3.5 meters wide and will be accessible by foot, off-road vehicle, quad bike and other special equipment.
The path is already in place in some places, but it has to be upgraded, according to Bilotaite.
"The patrol trail was installed back in 2002-2003, (...) but the infrastructure has since worn out, and (...) the path was damaged during the installation of the physical barrier and the surveillance systems," said Liubajevas.
The border guard chief said that around eight kilometers of patrol trail are currently in place.
"The work is being done in difficult conditions. The border runs through (...) districts that are very far away from the main infrastructure elements, and the contractors' work is being hampered by the landscape, water, forests, marshy places and the geographical location," he said.
According to Liubajevas, the authorities have signed contracts with four contractors.
The installation of the border patrol trail is an ongoing project to beef up the protection of the EU's external borders. The project costs an estimated 10 million euros, with 75 percent of the funding coming from the EU and the remaining 25 percent from the national budget.
Asked if such preventive measures will help cut down on smuggling and irregular migration, the SBGS commander said that provocations are still possible and that smugglers are changing their tactics.
"With the physical barrier and the surveillance systems in place, smugglers' tactics have changed somewhat: more and more contraband is being transported by drones," he said. "So we can say that the volume of smuggling is decreasing, but the number of cases is increasing."
When it comes to irregular migration, the situation remains tense, but more favorable than in neighboring countries, Liubajevas said, adding that the authorities prepare for possible provocations during NATO's summit in Vilnius in mid-July.
"We see the involvement of Belarusian border guards, so we prepare for possible provocations during the NATO summit," he said. "It possible that Alexander Lukashenko's regime may use it to destabilize the situation in our country."
Tightened controls will be in place at the border during the event in the Lithuanian capital, according to Liubajevas.
Lithuanian border guards have prevented about 20,500 people from crossing in from Belarus since August 3, 2021, when they were given the right to turn away irregular migrants. The number includes repeated attempts by the same people to cross the border.
The SBGS says that illegal migration to Lithuania and the EU is being facilitated by Belarusian officials.
Some 530 kilometers of fencing and 360 kilometers of concertina barrier have been installed on Lithuania's border with Belarus over the past year. Also, the entire border is covered by surveillance systems.
Lithuania and Belarus share a border of 679 kilometers, including more than 100 kilometers along rivers and lakes.