By Drew Wilson
July 30, 2006
VILNIUS, Lithuania — On July 31, 1991, at Lithuania’s Medininkai border post connecting it to Belarus, eight customs officials were forced to lie on the ground and shot in the head.
The only survivor, Tomas Sernas, is in a wheelchair. “We were doing customs checks on goods, and we were unarmed except for some sticks,” Mr. Sernas recalled recently. “Moscow wanted to do a provocation, and they did.”
The Medininkai massacre, still unresolved, was one of several border attacks carried out by a special Soviet militia to undermine Lithuania’s independence drive as it defied Moscow by establishing national borders.
Fifteen years later, Lithuania has come a long way. The country’s biggest border challenge now is preparing to join a zone of European countries that allows free travel and gradual dismantling of borders between member countries.
The Schengen Agreement — named for the small Luxembourg town on the border with France and Germany where the accord was signed in 1985 — has 26 signatories, including all European Union countries, except Britain and Ireland.
Lithuania signed the agreement in 2004 when it became a member of the European Union, but it needs to put certain processes in place before it is accepted into the zone.
“A lot of time is involved in fulfilling and documenting the [Schengen] requirements,” said Col. Vaclovas Zabarauskas, deputy commander of the Lithuanian Border Guards in Vilnius.
Under Soviet occupation for five decades from 1940, Lithuania lost the institution of border guards and had to learn procedures all over again after its independence was recognized in 1991. Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence in March 1990.
The Border Guard Service now employs 5,000 to cover land, water and air demarcations with four countries. Lithuania, which is about the size of West Virginia, is the largest of the three Baltic States — Latvia and Estonia are the other two. Sandwiched between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, Lithuania — which also shares borders with Latvia and Poland — has one of the most potentially precarious border situations in Europe.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” has said publicly he aims to strengthen Belarusian armed forces because of the presence of NATO bases on his country’s western borders. Large joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus last month, however, had no significant effect on security along Lithuania’s 300-mile border, according to Col. Zabarauskas. “We were informed beforehand of [the exercises],” he said. “Our helicopters carry out border patrol flights, and there have been no problems.”
Kaliningrad, which belonged to the former East Prussia until it was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945, is Russia’s only Baltic Sea port. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and the Baltic republics became independent, Russia lost access to all the other Baltic ports. Today, Kaliningrad has a high strategic value for Russia and is home to the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet.
When Lithuania entered NATO in 2004 and joined the European Union along with the other Baltic states and Poland that year, Kaliningrad became completely surrounded by the European bloc, and this amplified tensions with Russia. Moscow has lobbied unsuccessfully for relaxed rules allowing Russian nationals to transit across Lithuania to Russia. Currently, Russians must undergo a vetting process for transit documents and are not allowed to leave the train on Lithuanian territory.
In 2004, in a stark reminder of Medininkai, a female Lithuanian border guard checking documents of Russian nationals on a Kaliningrad-to-Moscow train was beaten unconscious. On the carriage wall, someone had scrawled “Lithuania for Russians.”
The guard has recovered and returned to work, Col. Zabarauskas said. Russia has since put its own militia on the train, and Lithuanian border guards now always work in pairs, he added.
Last year, another border incident involved a Russian military pilot flying an armed Su-27 fighter in formation over Lithuania and ejecting from his jet for unspecified reasons. The plane crashed in an isolated area, but Lithuanian officials initially refused to release the pilot until they confirmed the crash was unintentional. Speculation was that the pilot was testing response time of NATO jets based there.
The lone incursion, however, compares to the period of 1992-95, when Lithuania’s airspace was violated by Russian aircraft 3,018 times, according to a NATO research paper. Col. Zabarauskas downplayed the incidents and pointed out that Lithuania and Russia have signed border agreements and a readmission agreement that obligates Russia to take back anyone leaving the country illegally.
“The biggest challenge we have now on the Kaliningrad side is smuggling contraband, especially across the Nemunas River,” he said. The United States has supplied Lithuania with devices for monitoring radiation in train cars, which are used on the Russian border. Additionally, the European Union has given Lithuania $150 million over a two-year period for upgrading of border security and training.
If Lithuania is accepted into the Schengen zone, borders with Poland and Latvia are expected to come down in October 2007, Col. Zabarauskas said.
The progress the country has made since the Medininkai massacre is acknowledged by survivor Mr. Sernas, who was ordained a pastor and now works in customs administration in Vilnius despite his disability.
But the killings remain a topic in state discussions with Russia, and they continue to cloud relations. Mr. Sernas said authorities know the perpetrators and their whereabouts in Russia but have been unsuccessful in extraditing them to stand trial.
According to the office of Algimantas Valantinas, Lithuania’s state prosecutor, the Medininkai case is ongoing but is subject to a statute of limitations that would close it in five years.