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Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Lithuania stems tide of smuggling
The Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad has been notorious for smuggling since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has also been blighted by heroin abuse and an epidemic of HIV/Aids.

But as the BBC's Laura Sheeter reports, an economic upturn and Lithuania's EU membership have improved the situation.

Bridge over the River Neman
The River Neman has long been a major smuggling route

It is eight o'clock in the evening and the night patrol of the Lithuanian border guard is heading out.

Kitted out in camouflage gear, with night vision binoculars and radio packs, they mount a fleet of quad bikes, all flying the Lithuanian flag, and zoom off into the darkness.

Others head off to take over the boats from the day shift, while the last pair hop into a four-wheel drive - to patrol the bank of the River Neman.

The river divides Lithuania from Kaliningrad, Russia's European enclave on the Baltic Sea. It is a favourite spot for smugglers, who try to sail or swim across under cover of darkness. In winter they have even been known to try skating where the ice is thick enough.

EU investment

Ovidjus Lankauskas has been patrolling this border for 16 years, ever since it first came into existence. Turning off the car engine, he sits still in the darkness, watching and listening for any movements.

For Ovidjus, driving along the river bank is still something of a luxury, compared to the way he worked when he first started.

"We didn't have cars or even uniforms back then," he says.

"Now it's much easier. Bit by bit we got new equipment, and now things are changing a lot."

The reason things are changing so much is that Lithuania, which joined the European Union two years ago, is preparing to join the EU's borderless Schengen Zone.

map
Millions of euros are being spent on training and equipment to make sure that this border is impenetrable. Ovidjus thinks it is already making a difference.

"People used to smuggle vodka and sugar by the sackload. Tons of it, even tens of tons," he tells me.

"But now it's only cigarettes. They're easy to carry and they're much cheaper in Russia than in Lithuania."

Russian boom

But it is not just the tighter border controls that are reducing smuggling. On the other side of the river, in Kaliningrad itself, changes are afoot.

During the economic crises of the 1990s hundreds of thousands of local people found they no longer had jobs, as the Soviet military network collapsed and local businesses went bankrupt.

The new border with Lithuania provided one of their only means of survival. If they were lucky they could earn up to $50 (27) a day, at a time when many Kaliningraders lived on $20 a month.

But these days, Kaliningrad's economy is booming, money is pouring in from mainland Russia, and the region has almost no unemployment at all.

Recovery

Not far from the border, the Neman Pulp and Paper Mill is the most advanced mill in Russia. It has been here for nearly a century, surviving the Russian Revolution and World War II, only to go bust in the 1990s.

Kaliningrad border guards
The border guards are better equipped these days

Revived a few years ago it is now thriving, and is the biggest employer in the small town of Neman.

The firm's chief engineer Sergei Tarasov says life was tough while the mill was shut; the town had no heating or hot water, because the mill had produced them.

"Lots of people took cigarettes and vodka over the border," he says, "but now the factory's open again, many have come back to work."

He tells me the plant has brought life back to Neman.

"We have shops now and a cashpoint, and even a cafe," he says. "A few years ago there was nothing here at all."

Crossing back into Lithuania, the customs officer is surprised that unlike everyone else in the queue, I have bought no cigarettes. Clearly, while price differences remain, there are still profits to be made crossing this border.

But as their night shift draws to an end, the border guards are sure they are playing a large part in making it harder for people to do that illegally.

"No one even tried tonight", says Ovidjus.

"They'll have seen us in our car and our colleagues in the boats, and all the others on the quad bikes, and they won't have wanted to risk it. I'm sure that we'll manage to stop smuggling through here altogether before long."


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Lithuania
27 Sep 06 |  Country profiles
Profile: The European Union
27 Sep 06 |  Country profiles
Kaliningrad: The forgotten land
26 Mar 05 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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