RIGA - It was exactly a year ago when the long lines of trucks started to appear on the Latvian-Russian border. Remarkably, at the time most logistics experts and politicians said what everyone, particularly truckers and residents who live near the two border posts, didn't want to hear: namely, that the lines weren't going anywhere and would remain a way of life for some time to come.
Latvian media now post daily updates on the number of trucks at the Terehova and Grebneva crossings, and in mid-August the total number surpassed 2,000, with 1,700 alone at Terehova. The line stretched all the way to Rezekne, and drivers were forced to wait five to six days before entering Russia.
Given the heat and the lack of facilities to cope with the waste, eastern Latvia has turned into a foul-smelling trash dump.
"All the roadsides stink," complained Juris Dombrovskis, head of the county council in Ludza, the region bordering Russia, adding that the trucks parked on the road make it difficult for farmers to move around in their harvesting equipment. The worst is expected to come this fall when its starts to rain more and the ground turns into mud.
The government can only do so much. All the political will in Riga won't solve the problem if Russia isn't prepared to cooperate, and so far this has been the case. Not only has Moscow been slow to move on opening up a third crossing point, but bureaucrats are reluctant to post additional customs agents at the Latvian crossings.
However, in the past year a border treaty between the countries has been signed and relations have undergone a thaw.
For now, though, no matter how hard, and how efficient, Latvian customs inspectors work, the line won't budge if Russian inspectors don't pick up the pace. Add to this increasing EU-Russia trade, and one quickly sees that Latvia's border congestion will remain a part of life for the foreseeable future.
"Cargo flows through Latvia will only grow in the future, and truck lines won't shrink," Transport Minister Ainars Slesers told the Dienas Bizness daily recently. "And there's no need to dramatize the situation, as there are similar lines in Finland, Estonia and other countries."
He stressed the government was working to alleviate the congestion prior to opening a third crossing by improving infrastructure, repairing roads and establishing a system of online customs declaration that would expedite paperwork.
"If truck drivers have chosen Latvia as their corridor for cargo flow, there's nothing we can do," said Slesers. "We can only improve infrastructure and try to make our own good from this cargo flow. We have to create an opportunity for our people to work at these crossings, to generate jobs from these lines."
He added, "Our current task is to see that civilized conditions are established on the border."
Ilze Eida, head of the communications department at the Transport Ministry, told the Delfi news portal that the various state ministries needed a total of 307 million lats (438 million euros) over the next four years to instill "civility" on the two border crossings. She said 154 million would come from EU funds, according to the ministry's plans.
Pavels Grosevs, a representative of Latvijas Auto, a truckers association, told the Baltic News Service that truck lines increase every August as vacation season ends and companies rush to transport warehoused cargo. He said the situation would not improve in the near future and could even worsen in November on the wave of pre-Christmas trade.
In the long-term, he said the situation could exacerbate if EU hauling companies do not start hauling goods via other countries.
Meanwhile, the core reason why the lines began in the first place is that Belarus introduced a new system of visas and customs checks last year, forcing Lithuanian and EU truckers north to avoid the risks.
Valdis Trezins, president of Latvijas Auto, explained to the Biznes & Baltija daily that Belarus issues Latvian drivers a visa allowing them to stay in the country for 90 days; usually these are used up in six months. But once used up, that driver can't enter the country anymore for the remainder of the year.
Other haulers say that Belarusian officials can be extremely picky with documents, so that if one letter is off they can force a shipment to sit for days in a paid parking lot.
Russian officials have said they're doing everything possible to keep the lines moving. Igor Vlasenko, head of the northwestern Russian customs department, said that all possibilities to raise throughput capacities in Terehova have been used up and a reduction in the lines is not possible. After a recent meeting with his Russian counterpart, Slesers said that the third crossing post in Vientuli might be opened by the end of 2008, and that its initial capacity 's approximately 150 motor vehicles per day 's might be increased in the future.