Staunton, August 25 – Taking advantage of the earlier Syrian refugee crisis that led to a flow of refugees from Syria to Scandinavia via Russia, the FSB is now pressing to expand the size of the zone near Russia’s border with Finland in which no one can enter without special approval, despite the objections of regional officials.
If the FSB gets its way – and that is probable – the situation in Murmansk oblast will return to what it was in Soviet times or the early post-Soviet years when officials required visitors to places along the Soviet border to get special permission, something that was often denied (thebarentsobserver.com/borders/2016/08/russia-vows-extension-border-zone).
The FSB plan came to light when a regional blogger posted on line a July 13 response to an FSB proposal to expand the size of the restricted border region (bloger51.com/2016/08/61802), an event that promoted Murmansk Governor Marina Kovtun to declare in the press that she is opposed to such an action (severpost.ru/read/44507/).
“For many years,” the governor said, “we have been developing cross-border cooperation.” Expanding the special border zone and restricting visitors to it is “not what we have been working for” since the 2012 introduction of visa-free arrangements for local residents on both sides of the border.
Moscow apparently supported her efforts, but now in the wake of last year’s refugee crisis, things may have changed, Atle Staalesen and Thomas Nilsen of the The Barents Observer portal say. A year ago, “some 5500 migrants” crossed the border into Norway, but that flow stopped on November 30. Then 1,000 crossed into Finland before that too stopped February 29.
Since that date, the two journalists say, “not one single asylum seeker has crossed the borders from Russia’s Kola Peninsula to either Norway or Finland.”
Russia’s border zone regime has evolved since the end of Soviet times. In the 1990s and the 200s, the authorities divided the border zone in Murmansk into two parts, “the actual border zone” and “the so-called near-border zone.” Those who sought to enter the near-border zone had to show their passports. Non-Russians without a Norwegian passport risked being turned back.
“Until 2010, FSB could deny foreigners to enter the near-border zone, including to the towns of Nikel and Zapolyarny,” Staalesen and Nilsen say. “Traffic in transit from the border to Murmansk along the main road was allowed ony three days in the week for foreign registered vehicles … Norwegians even needed special permission from FSB border guards to make stops.”
Then from 2012 to late fall 2015, they say, “the Titovka checkpoint allowed most people through and there were few restrictions on movements for foreigners. Norwegians could freely travel in Pechenga, except in the closed military areas. In the border zone, outside the barbed wire fence … people are only allowed on the road if their papers allow them to enter Norway.”
Russian security officials aren’t talking for public attribution, but Arild Moe of the Fridthof Nansen Institute in Oslo says that what is taking place reflects the FSB’s desire to restore earlier border restrictions and its belief that European concerns about refugee flows via the north make this a good time to move in that direction.
Given Europeans don’t want more immigrants come from the Middle East via any route, including a Russian one, it seems unlikely they will object. But if the FSB gets away with this, it will likely use it as a precedent to expand border zone restrictions elsewhere along the Russian Federation border and return things to where they were in the late Soviet period.