TALLINN - In anticipation of Estonia joining the visa-free Schengen zone, President Arnold Ruutel toured the country's eastern border last week, concluding that the guards were in need of better social guarantees and a system of motivation.
The president flew by helicopter along the northern coast to Narva where he visited the local border station and the checkpoint on the pedestrian bridge. In Narva, the chief of the border service, Col. Roland Peets, gave the president an overview of key development questions, including Schengen Facility programs and how funds were being utilized.
The keynote of the report was that development problems are related to a shortage of personnel.
Ruutel then headed to the Mustajoe border station where he laid the cornerstone for a new building that will be constructed with the support of PHARE funds. He also visited the Alajoe border and, while in Mustvee, studied plans for the construction of a new station, which is to be completed in a year's time. The head of state ended the day at the Varnja station, on the western shore of Lake Peipsi, where a discussion of the peculiarities of guarding the lake border took place.
EU experts took a similar tour of the border on July 2.
The president, who was accompanied by Interior Minister Kalle Laanet, governors of the Ida-Viru, Jogeva and Tartu counties, said authorities would have to attract young people of the northeastern Ida-Virumaa region to fill the border guards' ranks.
In the president's opinion, a lot of work has been done to modernize the border service.
Meanwhile, the Estonian media cast doubt over the country's preparedness to join the Schengen zone since some 50 percent of the border guards' posts on the eastern border are still vacant. The Postimees daily reported that, two years ago, the EU allocated Estonia more than 46 million euros to develop the border service and, thanks to the aid, the eastern border is technically becoming more sophisticated.
Nevertheless, foreign experts were expected to cast doubt on Estonia's border control capabilities as the number of border guards has fallen below the critical level, according to an EU expert who asked not to be named.
"If such doubts are reflected in evaluation reports, Estonia will first have to provide information about the steps it is going to take to improve the situation," an unnamed expert told the daily.
Interior Minister Kalle Laanet said he hoped Estonia's capability would not be questioned. He also promised to make a stand in the government for a minimum monthly wage of 7,500 kroons (480 euros) for border guards.
Lt. Col. Raivo Terve, head of the Border Guard Board border security department, told reporters that the border guard was very frank with EU experts on the evaluation mission.
"The current situation is relatively positive. There are no remarks concerning procedural rules, the only issue being the figures of our staff," he said. "The problem is whether we are able to perform all the duties the Schengen law lays on us."
Terve added that 35 percent of the border guard posts were vacant, whereas in the North Border Guard area that number was 36.5 percent, in the western area it was 34.6 percent. Vacancies in the northeastern area amounted to 41.3 percent.
Terve added that the Schengen visa space would not prescribe any concrete personnel figures but demanded a sufficient number of people should be employed to protect the border.
He said that, with the introduction of better equipment, the number of people required would decline. Also, the Border Guard could rearrange resources 's e.g., from the domestic border between Estonia and Latvia to the eastern border.