RIGA - A new twist in the Baltic states' ongoing truck saga occurred on Nov. 25 when the long lines of trucks waiting to cross the Latvian-Russian border decreased, replaced by a similar backup at the Lithuanian-Latvian border.
Latvia has restricted the number of trucks entering from Lithuania, leading Lithuania to accuse Latvia of breaching the EU's guarantee of free movement of goods.
An emergency situation was declared on Nov. 25 in several Lithuanian regions bordering Latvia. The line at the Smelyne-Medumi checkpoint was about 280 trucks long, crawling along at three trucks per hour. Latvian border guards had been granting entry to about 70 trucks per day.
The situation at the Salociai-Grentstale border point was similar, with 260 trucks moving at about 20 trucks per hour. Some 80 trucks were lined up at the Obeliai border post, while another 20 were awaiting entry into Latvia at Kalviai.
To help truckers with the wait, the Zarasai municipality supplied portable toilets, garbage bins and drinking water to drivers waiting near Smelyne, along with showers and shopping kiosks. On Nov. 26, the Lithuanian defense ministry was also organizing an effort to feed the stuck truckers.
The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry sent a note to Latvia, complaining about the recent line development at the border.
"In order to prevent lines from forming [at the Latvian-Russian border], the [government] has formed lines here," Lithuanian Transport Ministry Secretary Rimvydas Graduaskas said on Nov. 25. "This is discrimination against the EU member states, and violates all EU-established procedures for the free movement of goods."
A bilateral meeting on the issue the following weekend yielded little results.
"The explanations by Latvians are the same. Transit got stuck due to long lines of trucks at the border with Russia," Lithuanian Interior Minister Raimondas Sukys told the Lietuvos Rytas daily after meeting with his Latvian counterpart, Raimonds Vejonis. "Other arguments include the poor state of Latvian roads after heavy rain and more stringent control measures adopted on the eve of the NATO Summit in Riga. We are far from satisfied with this, so we are seeking other ways to find an agreement."
Signs of unrest were reported among drivers waiting in lines that reached a length of 15 kilometers at Zarasai last weekend. The situation became so intense that several indignant drivers started to stage a road blockade on the morning of Nov. 27.
Truckers at the Grentstale border crossing were also upset.
"It is absolute anarchy. I came from Germany and I have been stuck here for eight hours already. It is nonsense - in Germany I have seen queues of 25 kilometers, but it never took longer than 4-5 hours. And here the line is four kilometers, but it moves very slowly," Antti, 37, an Estonian trucker told The Baltic Times.
"Nobody has explained to us why this is happening, some say it is because of NATO summit in Riga and President Bush, but I don't think this is true," he added.
"What do they think - my work day, for example, is nine hours long and I have spent eight hours here. So I carry cars, but what if it were milk products for example? Who would compensate for the damages?" explained Antti.
Polish trucker Mirolaw, 53, was in disbelief that such a situation was happening within the EU.
"Look around - there is only one toilet for hundreds of drivers, no normal place to eat. And I haven't mentioned places to sleep. We are human, normal people, we did not do anything wrong, so why do they treat us like animals? And this is happening inside the European Union, where movement is supposed to be free?" he asked.
A meeting over the weekend between Lithuanian and Latvian ministers did produce some short-term results. On Nov. 26, Latvia's border guards allowed some 20 to 40 trucks to pass through - as opposed to only a handful of trucks before - in one hour.
But the situation changed for the worse the following day, and fed up with Latvia's intransigance, Lithuanian Transport Minister Algirdas Butkevicius submitted an official complaint to the EU.
"The minister informed the European Commission that Latvia is limiting the crossing of its border by carriers from Lithuania and other countries, thus violating one of the basic principles of the European Union 's free movement of people and cargo inside the EU," the transport ministry said in their statement to the commission.
Also, the Lithuanian National Road Carriers' Association has accused Latvia of giving its own truckers preferential treatment in the jams. The association has claimed that Latvian trucks are being allowed to jump the lines, in breach of the EU's free competition rules.
According to Lithuanian State Border Guard Service data, some 14 trucks crossed the Salociai-Grenctale crossing point in an hour on Nov. 26, with 80 more trucks waiting in line. Trucks moved at the Kalviai-Meitene checkpoint at a rate of 6 trucks per hour (with 15 trucks in a line) and at one truck an hour at Obeliai-Subate, with 95 lined up.
On Nov. 27, the line of trucks stretched four kilometers at the border post on the main highway from Vilnius to Riga.