Truckers sit on Russian-Baltic borders

  • 2001-12-06
  • Leah Bower, RIGA, and Kairi Kurm, TALLINN
Animosity between the Baltic states and Russia flared yet again as kilometer-long queues of trucks built up on the Latvian and Estonian borders.

Slowed by increasingly thorough inspections of Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian trucks entering Russia, hundreds of vehicles idled for days in lines that stretched up to 10 kilometers.

And for truckers and companies whose goods are in transport, the border delays translate into lost money, the Latvian trucking association claims.

But there is no shortage of theories as to what is causing the slowdown.

"New management at the customs offices in the northwestern part of Russia is trying to prove that the former management's work wasn't good," complained Toivo Kuldkepp, head of the Association of Estonian International Road Carriers. "The Russian border now checks the trucks very carefully."

But Didzis Jonovs, adviser to the Latvian transportation minister, said the delays were caused by an inspection order specifically for Lithuanian transport, not Estonian or Latvian.

Jonovs didn't, however, know why the Russian border officials were looking more closely at Lithuanian rigs.

"(The Russian officials) just organized everything they normally do in a different way," he said.

Worst hit were the Luhamaa and Narva border crossings in Estonia and Latvia's Terehova border crossing.

Estonia shares three border control points with Russia, while Latvia has two. Lithuania only shares a border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

At the Narva crossing, the line of trucks maxed out at 78 with only 30 vehicles being processed by Russian customs each day - down from 130, said a border official who asked not to be named.

"We don't know why the lines are so long. Our Russian colleagues haven't explained it to us," he said.

An official at the Luhamaa border, where one vehicle waited four days to enter Russia, echoed Kuldkepps' theory on a change in management sparking the tougher inspections.

"We could approve more vehicles, but our Eastern neighbor can't accept so many trucks at once," he said. "They want to check every vehicle. It's probably because their management changed recently."

Nearly 300 trucks piled up at the Terehova border Nov. 29, prompting drivers to threaten Latvian officials with a blockade if the situation was not addressed by both countries.

Latvian Automobile Associ-ation also claimed the border slowdowns were making truckers a laughing stock.

Latvian border guard chief Gunars Abolins notified his Lithuanian colleagues to start routing trucks through Belarus instead, which temporarily shortened queues Nov. 25. But the lines quickly built back up.

While delayed truckers along the Latvian border threatened to strike and block the crossings, officials tried to stave off a blockade.

The Latvian-Russian border was last shut down by truckers when the number of Russian transport permits ran out in 1999.

"The consequences of a strike could have been very unpleasant," said Vija Mara Kronberga, head of the Latvian National Border Guard's press office. "Everything was done to prevent it."

Latvian Automobile Asso-cition pushed the Latvian government to send a note of protest to the Russian Embassy in Riga, which the Interior Ministry delivered.

Russian customs officials decided to relax border controls later in the week, and lines slowly decreased as truck processing sped up to normal levels.

Jonovs said this wasn't the first time there was a long delay at the Russian border for truckers, but that it was definitely the worst in terms of wait time and numbers of backed-up trucks.