RIGA - Issues surrounding the heavy congestion at the border dominated the first Latvian-Russian intergovernmental commission on July 20. The two sides managed to agree on the need for new and upgraded border crossing points and laid the foundation for future meetings.
"Russia committed to boost the capacity of its border crossing posts, while Latvia pledged to improve infrastructure," said Finance Minister Oskars Spurdzins, who represented Latvia at the commission.
Spurdzins added, however, that significant EU funds would be required for Latvia to improve the border situation with Russia. "It is absolutely necessary to attract EU funding," he told journalists at a press conference after the meeting.
Heavy congestion at the Latvian-Russian border has launched itself back into the limelight recently, as truckers staged a protest over the long lines 's which often take three or more days to get through 's and threatened more to come if the situation did not improve.
Latvian Border guard head Gunars Dabolins blamed journalists for stirring up resentment among the truckers and prompting the protest. He pointed out that many truckers merely wanted to pose for the cameras. "I understand that journalists have their own business, but this [inciting the truckers] would not be the right course of action," he said.
He responded to the incident by calling for patience on the part of the truckers and promising the construction of additional roads and border crossing points.
Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin, who represented the Russian side of the commission, pointed out that more roads and border crossings would not solve the problem on their own. He noted the need for high technology border outposts to ease the strain.
"No matter how many crossing posts were opened... it would not help," Levitin said. "We are for the opening of new border crossing posts, but they must be equipped with advanced technologies," he added.
The Russian transport minister said that he believes the present situation could be eased by setting up an electronic declaration system, one which would enable truck drivers who have been registered with the system go through a special corridor.
In the days following the commission meeting, Foreign Ministry Under Secretary of State for EU Affairs Normunds Popens, a strong candidate to take the recently vacated position of permanent representative to the EU, disagreed with the transport minister and called on Russia to do more about the lines. He stated in an interview with Latvijas Avize that Russia needs to step up its efforts in helping to construct more passageways rather than focusing on EU sponsored technology.
"Speaking about our eastern border, there have been no complaints about how it has been equipped â€¦Even if Latvia built a huge motorway, nothing would change if Russia does nothing for its part. The EU can provide technical assistance, for instance, by upgrading customs posts and training staff, but the EU cannot construct roads," Popens said.
He added that the current build-up of trucks along the border is not Latvia's fault. He said that there is no quick solution to the problem, but it is being regularly discussed at EU meetings.
The discussions came at the same time as a visit by German officials evaluating Latvia's preparedness for Schengen membership, which included a visit to the Russian border. The experts seemed to approve of the way Latvian customs officials are handling the issue, saying that Latvia is on the "right track" for membership at the beginning of next year.
Dabolins, speaking at the half-year accounting meeting of the border guard, said that the main reason for the long lines is customs inspection. He noted that Latvian border guards need two to three minutes to check the documents and identity of the trucker, while customs inspection of the cargo takes at least 40 minutes.