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THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING
By Ashley Mote
If you thought Britain was overcrowded and already had an immigration problem, get ready for the bad news.
As we all know, since May 2004 we have seen the arrival in the UK of tens of thousands from Eastern Europe, and they are still coming. But that, it seems, is only the start.
Some time next year it is virtually certain that Russians and Chinese will start appearing here in even larger numbers.
Let me explain.
The eastern border of Western Europe was well established and well guarded where it stood before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finland is the best example.
But much of the rest of today’s eastern border was once inside the USSR. Today, as then, it has little by way of barriers and patrols. That border stretches from Estonia in the Baltic north to Slovakia and Hungary in the south.
Lithuania, for example, has a 1000-mile border with Belarus protected by derisory policing. Further south, the Ukraine butts against Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. Its southern border is with Romania.
Huge stretches of these borders are either dense woodland or mile upon mile of open moors with almost no distinguishing features on the landscape. Even the tiny villages are few and far between. They are occupied entirely by peasant farmers and their immediate families, scratching a living from the unforgiving land.
Ironically, the official border crossings, used by most cars and trucks, are brimming with guards, guns and fencing for a few miles either side. But drive for an hour along the border and turn down any farm track and there is nothing to tell you even where the border is.
Today, any Russian wishing to reach the west can walk across the border into Lithuania in a few minutes, without anyone knowing he is there.
But he will find it difficult to get any further. Even if he got into Poland which, unusually, did have border controls with the USSR, the Polish border with Germany is a real one.
But next year everything changes, and for the worse. For eastern Europeans, the words ‘free movement’ will take on a completely new meaning.
The Schengen Agreement has been signed by most but not all European countries, including independent sovereign states like Norway and Switzerland. It is already in effect. It allows the free movement of people across borders. No passport checks, no visas. Nothing.
Next year, 2007, the Schengen Agreement will apply to Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic - all previously part of the Soviet Union, and all now with inadequate frontier controls with other former Communist countries.
So, next year, if a Russian or a Ukrainian or a Belarusian gets across their border into any of those countries they gain access to the rest of Western Europe. They will have little trouble getting anywhere they choose.
These former Soviet republics are not prison camps any more. They issue passports valid for international travel. Internal passports are a thing of the past. Indeed, the Russians have just reached agreement with the west to ease visa regulations, although they recently refused a visa for the Estonian foreign minister, no less, to visit St Petersburg for a ministerial meeting.
A few weeks ago I met the British Ambassador in Lithuania, who drew my attention to these facts and their enormous implications. He also commented that I was the first visitor ever to visit him to ask about what was happening on the borders with the former USSR.
My visit was intended to find out more about Kaliningrad, which is a Russian enclave 150 miles inside the EU and cut off from Russia by Lithuania. Formerly known as Konigsberg, this strategic ice-free port on the Baltic was ceded to the USSR at the end of the second world war.
During the 50 years of official occupation it became Russia's most important nuclear submarine base. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has remained in Russian hands and there appears no inclination by western governments to make an issue of its current questionable status.
Fifty years ago many Russians were forced to move to Kaliningrad. Most were the families of soldiers and naval personnel stationed there. The local population was irreversibly diluted. Of course similar dilution occurred in other states bordering Russia at the end of WW2. The three Baltic States were worst affected and still host large Russian communities to this day. But the effect in Kaliningrad was to create a community without roots or commitment to each other or the area.
Today Kaliningrad is a desolate, destitute and dangerous area three times the size of Wales. It houses a crumbling nuclear submarine base, a mighty arsenal of weapons, 20,000 Russian troops and a population of almost a million living on an average income of less than £70 a month - the lowest average income anywhere in Russia.
Apart from farming land that is heavy and difficult to cultivate, organised crime and smuggling appear to be the other main occupations in Kaliningrad.
This tiny enclave faces extreme social, economic, medical and environmental problems, and the Russian government’s policy is to leave things much as they are. They fear, it is said, that such an area cut off from direct contact with the Russian government, might somehow declare UDI and become a Hong Kong of the north.
An incredible prospect, given the present conditions there, but paranoia can play funny tricks with the minds of obsessive politicians who are also control freaks.
The facts say neglect is the last thing Kaliningrad needs. A huge injection of support and practical help is required. Pollution in the area is out of control, especially from toxic waste. Some areas are literally uninhabitable, contamination is so severe. And if all that is not bad enough, Kaliningrad has the highest rates of HIV and TB infection anywhere in Europe.
But where Russia imagines a problem and possibly a threat, others have seen an opportunity, and grabbed it.
Some £20 millions-worth of aid has been pumped into Kaliningrad over the last ten years, but there is scarce evidence of it. Like so much western aid to deprived areas, the money has clearly disappeared into a few back pockets.
It will come as no surprise that many people living in such an environment and under such conditions want to leave. According to a recent opinion poll, most young people now living in Kaliningrad are twice as likely to go west rather than east, given half a chance. The Austrian ambassador to Russia has even suggested visa-free passage for Kaliningrad residents.
In the unlikely event of such a change, they will all come. Be in no doubt.
And they would not be the only ones.
My guide and interpreter reminded me that Russia has been turning a blind eye to many tens of thousands - if not millions - of Chinese who have crossed the border into Siberia and much of the rest of eastern Russia in recent years. They have escaped from the overcrowded and tightly regulated China into which they were born and now dominate parts of eastern Russia.
Unsurprisingly these Chinese immigrants have proved far more enterprising than the local population and it has suited the Russian government to see the local economy grow more quickly as a result of Chinese activity there.
But what happens when word of mouth – let alone satellite television - reaches Siberia? What happens when Siberians learn that the Belarusian and Ukrainian borders are porous and leaking people from the east into western Europe?
What happens when they understand the consequences of Schengen being applied to the border of Lithuania and Poland, Hungary and Slovakia? What happens when they find out that tiny Lithuania has a thousand mile border with Belarus and hopelessly inadequate resources to protect it?
Who will be that last Chinese or Russian to turn out the lights before they leave?
If we think we have a problem now, it is likely to pale into insignificance in 2007 and beyond.
The Italian politician Franco Frattini was quoted recently as saying “Nobody wants to open this Pandora’s box.” The politicians know, but they don’t want you to know.
But we already know that the Ukraine, and possibly Georgia, want to apply for membership of the apparently wealthy club on their doorstep. Will Belarus, even Russia itself, be far behind? What will we see then in terms of immigration?
So how easy is it for Russians to get into Lithuania during a road or rail crossing from Russia to Kaliningrad? Ironically, it is proving difficult and rare. Last year less than 150 people got caught. It is easy to see why.
All Russian rail passengers and travellers by road are logged on computers at both ends of each journey. Other nationalities are checked but then largely ignored. Two intermediate stops en route by train are used by only a handful of Lithuanians. One five mile stretch of railway line we visited had 84 cameras, some with heat-seeking sensors, to detect anyone either attempting to cross the line or jumping from a moving train.
The best option was much easier – walk or drive down any small farm lane or walk through the forest or across the heavy farmland at night. The chances of meeting anyone are slim, and the border will not even be identified.
Welcome to the west.
First published in Compass magazine, January 2006.
© 2006 - Ashley Mote - All Rights Reserved
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Ashley Mote was elected to the European Parliament in June 2004. He is one of ten MEPs elected from the South-East of England region. He sits in the parliament as an independent and has seats on the Constitutional Affairs and Budget Control Committees.
Members are told when they can speak, and for how long. Backbenchers rarely have more than a minute, rarely more than once in a four-day sitting, and never to a crowded chamber. Backbenchers’ opinions are of little account.