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Is Lithuania's 550-km border fence going to be money well spent?

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By Linas Jegelevicius
Migrants stand behind a fence inside the newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, some 38km (23,6 miles) south from Vilnius
Migrants stand behind a fence inside the newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, some 38km (23,6 miles) south from Vilnius   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

A little more than a month into Lithuania's ambitious project to build a 550-kilometre fence along its border with Belarus, questions are being asked over whether it should be constructed at all.

MPs approved the barrier earlier this month after a surge in the number of migrants arriving at Lithuania's frontier. Around 4,100 have illegally crossed into Lithuania from Belarus so far this year, according to the interior ministry. It compares with just 74 last year.

Vilnius has accused Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the influx as revenge for Lithuania's role in pushing for EU sanctions against Minsk over the diverting of a Ryanair plane and the subsequent arrest of a dissident journalist.

But, a month on from construction starting, the project has already had some hiccups. The EU has refused to put in any funding towards the fence and progress has been slow.

So far, just five kilometres of the barbed wire has been installed. At this speed, it would take Lithuania 136 months, or around 11 years, to have it finished.

To many Lithuanians the whole idea of the fence is questionable.

“Unless we erect a Great-Wall-of-China-like fence, 10 metres high and all in concrete and with 3 metres of a fortified compound in the soil, the fence the Lithuanian government has embraced will not be impenetrable," said the owner of a construction company in western Lithuania, who spoke to Euronews on the condition of anonymity.

"No fence is such: you can dig a hole under a fence, you can fly over it, use a lifting fork to get on the other side and so on.

“The whole thing (about the fence) is sheer politics. But yes – a barrier is better than nothing at all. The costs however seem to be huge.”

Lithuanian border guards have recently observed migrants crossing the barbed wire barrier by simply cutting it, Agne Bilotaite, the country’s Interior minister said -- without providing any details -- that it would be improved with "various engineering solutions".

There have also been problems getting supplies: Lithuania ran out of barbed concertina wire right at the start of the construction.

It was Estonia -- another Baltic country -- that lent a hand, offering 100 kilometres of the material so work on the most vulnerable sections of the border with Belarus could continue. Last week, Ukraine supplied 30 kilometres of razor wire.

There were rumours Lithuania was compelled to have other short construction hiatuses due to a lack of resources, but authorities were reticent to speak about the downsides.

“The good news is that the building of the fence is being continued," Bozena Zaborovska-Zdanovic, advisor to the Lithuanian interior minister, told Euronews.

"Besides, the border is also being strengthened in the most sensitive stretches. Our goal remains the same – to have the physical barrier installed as soon as possible. At this point, it is crucial to secure an uninterrupted supply of materials.

“As a political agreement (on constructing the fence) has been signed, the project will be continued even with a change of the Lithuanian government.”

But Dainius Kepenis, an MP from the opposition Farmers and Greens Union (LFGU) party, is doubtful over that last claim.

“I’d not be so sure about that," he told Euronews. "I hear some very weird things being said by the Lithuanian government.

"First, the ruling Conservatives chastises Hungary fiercely for starting building its own wall and now, look, what a switcheroo – they are consulting us how to build our own wall.”

“As much as I am for democracy in Belarus, Lithuania is now paying a heavy price for being too a pushy exporter of democracy... I’ve calculated that the hawkish foreign policy the conservative-liberal government is implementing will cost Lithuania nearly €1 billion. It includes the roughly €150 million fence project, building of temporary housing for the migrants and the potential losses from the imminent halting of Chinese freights and Belarusian fertilizers.”

China has recently called off its ambassador to Lithuania in protest of the latter’s announcement on opening a Taiwanese representation in Vilnius later this year. So far, Lithuania is the only EU member state that left China’s 17+1 cooperation format.

Remigijus Zemaitaitis, also a Lithuanian parliamentarian, also doubts the necessity of the fence on the border.

“The costs are huge and its efficiency is very questionable. Particularly now, when the deterrence of migrants using so-called pushbacks is seemingly working. And if it is really working, then why rush with erecting the barbed wire on the border?

"Let’s not fool ourselves that the fence inflicting deadly wounds to forest animals will be a guarantor of Lithuania’s security. The fence is clearly devoted to Lukashenko. And what will happen with it when the tyrant is gone?”

But Laurynas Kasciunas, a Conservative MP and head of the influential parliamentary committee on national security and defence, is convinced the fence is a must to protect Lithuania from migrants – now and in future.

“The two-layer fence with various engineering solutions is what we need to protect our border against an unpredictable regime like that of the tyrannical ruler over the border. We intend to finance the whole fence project from the state coffers, but we will ask Brussels to help us with that too,” Kasciunas told euronews.com

According to Kasciunas, the completion of the fence will cost around €150 million.

“The challenges I see now are the pace (of the building) and transparency, especially when we are in crunch time.”

Lithuania has issued an international tender to purchase 3,000 kilometres of concertina wire and all other necessary parts and installation works, the Asset Management and Economy Department (AMED) under the interior ministry, has announced this week.

The plan is to spend up to €16.15 million on 3,000 kilometres of razor wire, which will be put up in several layers, and up to €12.5 million on installation works. Up to €23.23 million have been earmarked for buying other necessary parts, such as posts, tie wire and fixing devices, the AMED said.

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