Thursday, January 24, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Confusion Reigns over Russia’s Borders

Paul Goble

Baku, January 24 – Six months after the Federal Security Service (FSB) issued new and ostensibly more liberal rules about Russia’s border zone, many in them, in adjoining foreign countries or travelling across these frontiers remain far from certain about what the new regulations mean.
Despite some decorative relaxations in some rules, the new rule still bans foreigners from visiting them without permission – anyone who does so can be expelled and banned from travel to Russia for five years – and requires that they take “the shortest route” through these areas.
(For the text of the law and discussions of the various considerations that led the Russian government to issue a modified version last year, see Russkaya gazeta’s report at and the Murmansk paper Pechenga’s article at
But if the rules sound draconian, the FSB’s enforcement of them has been anything but. Norwegians continue to cross the border and travel in the zone without getting any permission or being punished, the “Barents Observer” reported this week (
And this confusion on the Russian side has been compounded, that Internet journal reported, because Norwegian officials had Kirkenes have publicly stated that they have “the silent consent” of Russian officials to send into the zone any of their nationals who want to go.
When it released the new rules in September (they went into effect on December 5), the FSB said that it needed to tighten controls over border regions in order to combat the terrorist threat. But it quickly acknowledged that it did not have to impose equally tight control over the border with Finland and borders in southern regions of the country.
The FSB says that it is being flexible, but the way in which the rules are written is certain to lead others to conclude that it wants to be able to decide how to treat those who pass through the border zones on a case by case basis, something that could lead to charges of extreme arbitrariness.
What makes all this so intriguing is that Russians focus on their borders more than many other peoples do, defining their country not in terms of that which is inside these lines on the map happen to be but in terms of the lines themselves and where they are placed. (
Indeed, in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians have had a hard time accepting the former borders of the RSFSR as the real borders of their country. Some would like to see them extend further, and some would pull them back. But many choose to debate the future of their country in terms precisely of those lines.
There are numerous examples of this, but perhaps the most recent was reported this week, Apparently, Pavel Danilin, who has served as a Kremlin propagandist in addition to other roles, turned to his colleagues and asked them “what Russia would [they] like to see in 2020?”
As for himself, Danilin said, “if [he] were asked o describe what Russia [he] would like to see in the distant future, then everything here is quite simple: ‘the borders of Russia will follow the orbit of the planet Pluto.” It is not clear whether he was trying to be funny, but the fact that he chose to discuss his country in this way is anything but.

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