Corruption Flourishes in Russia’s Border Zones
Published: May 15, 2013 (Issue # 1759)
MOSCOW — On the face of it, there are few similarities between the city of Blagoveshchensk, located in the Far East, and the country’s natural gas capital of Novy Urengoi, 3,000 kilometers away in the tundra just below the Arctic Circle.
But both cities are part of official border zone territory: areas of land abutting Russia’s borders that are closed to visitors and under the direct control of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.
Frequent changes to the exact boundaries of border zones and arbitrary enforcement of access suggest that they are a source of large scale corruption and designed to control population movements rather than being a necessity for national security, according to experts.
The difference between the restrictions in Blagoveshchensk and Novy Urengoi reveal some of this ambiguity.
Visitors to Blagoveshchensk, which sits on the other side of the Amur River from the Chinese city of Heihe, enjoy complete freedom of movement because it is inexplicably exempted from the usual border zone limitations.
Novy Urengoi, in contrast, saw roadblocks go up on its outskirts last year as officials activated its border zone status that had lain dormant for five years. Novy Urengoi is thousands of kilometers from the nearest foreign country.
“It is the lite version of the Soviet Union,” said Natalya Zubarevich, director of the regional program at the Independent Institute of Social Policy.
In place since the 1930s, border zones, or pogranichnie zoni, were abolished in 1993 after the fall of Communism but re-instated in 2006 under President Vladimir Putin. To enter the zone, all non-residents, foreigners and Russians alike, must obtain a special permit from the FSB — a procedure usually requiring about a month to complete. The limitations on entering border zones are one example of a panoply of Soviet-era restrictions being enforced with increasing zeal in modern Russia. Legislation to broaden the significance of the residence permit, or propiska, is currently moving through the State Duma and is expected to come into force later this year.
In recent years, there has been a steady growth in the intensity with which restrictions on movement in border zones have been applied by the security services.
In 2007 just 13,364 people were caught illegally entering border zones. But this rose to 33,797 people in 2012, according to statistics provided to The St. Petersburg Times by the FSB. “They need to show that they are catching more and more people,” said Andrei Soldatov, a security expert and founder of the Agentura.ru think tank. “Especially in the regions, the mindset of the FSB is the same as it was in the Soviet Union.”
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