Cablegate: The Estonia-Russia Border: Many Roads to Gridlock

DE RUEHTL #0520/01 2251239
R 131239Z AUG 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: (A) TALLINN 347 (B) August 2006 Lee-Lane e-mails

1. (U) Summary: Extended delays in recent months for
truckers waiting to transport goods from northeastern
Estonia into Russia have raised many questions about
possible causes, especially in the wake of Bronze Soldier-
related transit disruptions since April. It is unclear
whether politics or simple inefficiency on the Russian side
has caused the delays. While Estonian officials cite a
combination of political motives, anti-smuggling efforts,
inadequate Russian infrastructure, and bureaucracy, they
stress that working-level relations with their Russian
colleagues are still good. The present situation is
largely a repeat of last summer, which officials expect to
abate by September, but return on a seasonal basis for the
foreseeable future. End summary.

2. (U) Estonia's border with Russia is not only a key
transit point for goods traveling between the two
countries, but also the easternmost EU border with Russia.
The recent increase in delays at the principal crossing
point in Narva has therefore been of interest beyond these
two economies. [Note: The Estonian Tax and Customs
Authority estimates that 85-90 percent of outbound cargo
transit is of non-Estonian origin transiting from elsewhere
in the EU. End Note] The recent spike in wait times for
trucks crossing into Russia has grown from an average of
one day to as long as four or five days, raising many
questions about the cause of the delays, especially coming
as they do in the wake of politically-motivated trade
disruption measures of recent months. (Reftel A)

3. (U) It has not been uncommon for commercial trucks
crossing into Russia from neighboring Latvia to experience
similar lines 800-1200 vehicles long during recent months.
Extended delays were also a problem in the summer of 2006,
when explanations ranged from the diversion of trucks
through Estonia to avoid new Belarus road taxes, to
political motivations in Moscow related to the Estonian-
Russian border treaty. [Note. Russian President Vladimir
Putin had also announced a new crackdown on cross-border
corruption in the summer of 2006. End Note] Waits in
border queues spiked in late June of 2007, going from an
average line of 149 trucks on the Estonian side waiting 1.1
days to cross, rising to an average of 329 trucks in line
waiting up to 5 days to cross since late June. While
Estonian officials we met with said they expect the long
waits to diminish by the end of August and increase again
around year-end, they offered several observations about
causes of this summer's delays.

Power Politics, or Old-Fashioned Russian Inefficiency?

4. (SBU) We met with Margus Noorma and Dmitri Jegorov of
the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (EMTA) in Tallinn, as
well as with a border inspector and the Deputy Head of
Customs at the Narva checkpoint. The EMTA officials at the
border in Narva acknowledged that some of the recent
slowdown may be politically directed since the Bronze
Soldier controversy in late April and early May, but they
also said working-level contact with their Russian
counterparts across the river remained cordial and
cooperative. They noted that since the 30 percent slowdown
in crossing volume beginning June 27, they had received
four different stories from the Russian side explaining the
delays: road repairs, staffing shortages during summer
vacation, slow compliance with mandated computer upgrades,
and greater pressure at other Russian border crossings for
resources. They did say, however, that their Russian
contacts seemed uncomfortable talking about the reasons for
the delays. Vitali Sergeyev, Director of the Narva
Business Advisory Service, added that "For every 1 Russian
working at the customs office, 3 are drinking coffee."

5. (U) Our contacts at the border said that out of
Russia's 120 border crossings, only three of them are with
Estonia. Meetings with their Russian counterparts in
Moscow made it clear that problems on Russia's southern and
Asian borders are relatively of much greater concern,
making the Estonian border a lower priority. Furthermore,
in spite of a tripling of gross cargo crossing the border
since Estonian accession to the EU, the Russian customs
service has made no significant upgrades to its
infrastructure since 1995, and is not properly equipped to
address increases in traffic. [Note. Russia's Finnish
border checkpoints enjoy higher capacities since Finland
itself funded infrastructure expansion on both sides of the
border there. End Note.]

Looking on the Bright Side...

TALLINN 00000520 002 OF 002

6. (SBU) Back in Tallinn, Deputy Directors-General Jegorov
and Noorma stressed that cooperation with their Russian
counterparts remains good on areas such as anti-smuggling,
fraud prevention, information transfer, and implementation
of laws, all of which they engage Russia on within the
framework of an EU Working Group that convenes every three
months. Data they provided on truck crossings for January-
July 2007 showed that while the number of trucks queuing on
the Estonian side varied anywhere from 50-400 trucks (a
wait of about 3 to 111 hours), the number actually crossing
into Russia every 24 hours stayed roughly constant within a
band of 100-150 per day. They attributed the June 27 drop
to 70-100 crossings per day to the many reasons cited
above. In recent days, the Narva mayor has criticized the
GOE in the press for not coordinating more closely with the
city and doing more to resolve the long delays. However,
when we met with Georgi Ignatov, Director of the Narva
Economic Development Department, he admitted that the
problem is essentially one between the Estonian and Russian
governments and respective ministries, in which the city
can have little influence. There is an agreement between
the two countries stating that not fewer than 150 trucks
per day will cross at Narva, but there is no mechanism to
enforce this, and the Estonians see no great urgency to do
anything to increase the flow of goods. The vast majority
of them are of non-Estonian origin, and the GOE receives no
transit fees as it does for rail cargo, but rather, as one
said: "The trucks just ruin our roads."

7. (SBU) Comment. As we saw with extensive crossing
delays in the summer of 2006, explanations this summer
range from pragmatic to political in nature. While post-
Bronze Soldier rhetoric from the Kremlin clearly played a
role in the slowdown of rail transit through Estonia and
the temporary closure of the Narva bridge, it is unclear
whether this is the case with the recent slowdown of truck
transit. Our contacts in Estonian Customs had nothing bad
to say about the working-level cooperation with their
counterparts on the Russian side, but worried that if
hostile talk from Moscow continues, that could worsen
things at the border. So far, the GOE seems fairly
confident that wait times at the border will return to
normal soon. End Comment.


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