Trouble Next Door

It's been three years since her husband disappeared, and Irina Krasovskaya has told the story over and over again. But there are still moments when she can't quite hold back the tears. She lives in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, where key members of the political opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko have vanished without a trace. Her husband, Anatoly, a prominent businessman, counts among them. He was last seen one night in 1999, when he shared a car ride with Viktor Gonchar, a political rival to Lukashenko. Neither man has been heard of since, though former prosecutors cite evidence of a death squad linked to the president's regime.

Talking about the "disappeared" of Belarus can be dangerous. Last September the notoriously repressive Lukashenko won another five-year term as supreme leader, and lately he's been threatening moves that would allow him to stay even longer. He's been helped by the fact that the outside world pays scant attention. But that may be about to change, namely because Belarus is about to get a potentially nosy (and powerful) new neighbor--the European Union. Three nations bordering the former Soviet republic--Latvia, Lithuania and Poland--are on course to join the EU in 2004. For Krasovskaya and other families of the missing, that's cause for hope. If Europe's new proximity casts a spotlight on the country's shady politics, they may finally be cleaned up. "I think it will change a lot," Krasovskaya says of Europe's great leap eastward. "If Europeans wish to live normally and peacefully, they will have to pay attention to a country next door, where there is no democracy."

That's a perspective seldom heard in Brussels. When it comes to Europe's impending expansion, debate has centered almost entirely on the economic and technical challenges of absorbing 10 new members, most from the former communist bloc. The plight of countries left outside has received far less attention--a danger, since this is where the enlarged EU will encounter some of the most intractable problems of the future. Backward Belarus, with its autocratic politics and impoverished population of 10 million, is just the start. To the north, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea, there's the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a key naval base and already the focus of a nasty diplomatic spat as European and Russian leaders grapple with the issue of how to treat 1 million Kaliningraders encircled by the EU. To the south lies vast Ukraine, politically unstable, deeply corrupt and geopolitically undefined--a strategically vital country of 50 million people that may get lost in the "gray zone" between Russia and the West. Finally there's tiny Moldova, the poorest country in Europe and a major exporter of problems to the rest of the continent. By some estimates, one quarter of its 4 million people live outside the country, many of them women sent to work as prostitutes by unscrupulous traffickers.

Call it Europe's messy backyard. Historically, the region has always been known as the borderlands, a sort of no man's land of some 65 million people stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, people whose identities have been confused and sometimes willfully distorted by the ebb and flow of competing empires. The Mongols and the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Teutonic knights vied for ascendancy here. So did the Poles, Austrians and Germans.

And so it is today. Even as powerful forces in each of the countries push for closer ties with Europe and the West, Russia's influence still looms large, exerting a pull toward the east. Meanwhile, wan economies and poor political leadership have left the region prey to some of the worst effects of globalization--and ill-equipped to seize its advantages. Everywhere, there's a deep sense of disappointment, dislocation and grievance. In the early '90s, Kaliningrad hyped itself as Russia's would-be Hong Kong, a trade hub and portal to the resource-rich Russian hinterland. Instead it's become a haven for smugglers, a mecca for sex tourists and home to sky-high levels of HIV infection and AIDS. In pre-Soviet days, the Ukrainian city of Odessa was a thriving Black Sea port. Hamstrung by corruption and senseless red tape, it's now making a name for itself as a conduit for Afghan heroin heading to points farther west.

The list of such problems is endless. For the new Europe, the question will soon become: how to deal with distant troubles that are now, suddenly, on its doorstep? To appreciate just how ticklish this promises to be, consider the issue of illegal immigration, the likely bete noire of the future Union. In the western Ukrainian town of Mukachevo, just a few miles from the future EU border of Hungary and Slovakia, authorities have set up a camp to house 300 men caught trying to cross illegally to the West. The inmates hail from India, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, China. Most have paid up to $10,000 to organized-crime groups who promised to smuggle them into Western Europe along a route running through Russia. Some of the men have been in Mukachevo for six months, much of that time spent in a few cramped tents at the local border guards' base. But the new camp, where one room contains as many as a dozen men, isn't much of an improvement. There's no running water or decent sanitation, and medical care is virtually nonexistent. Inmates accuse their guards of beating them and misappropriating funds for their care. "We are dying here," says Akhmad Kamel, a 30-year-old engineer from Iraq. "No bath, no telephone, no water. We know we broke the law. But we are human. We're not animals."

The fact that Europe is suddenly flush with the backyard is likely to exacerbate such problems. For starters, it will make the borderland countries that much more attractive as a springboard to the West. (Once migrants slip across the new border into the so-called Schengen zone, where a passport need never be shown again, it's open road all the way to Britain, Germany, Italy or France.) Ukrainian authorities say that they're cracking down, and point to statistics showing a decline in the number of illegal arrivals since the government began to tighten controls at its eastern frontier with Russia. But few Western Europeans are reassured. Ukraine's Russian border stretches for thousands of miles. Most of it is not patrolled, and those who are intercepted are at best a drop in the bucket. By one estimate from the International Organization for Migration, 1.6 million migrants passed through Ukraine in 2000. To understand just how easy it is, look at a map. This part of Ukraine adjoins four countries, all candidates for EU membership--Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Defending the frontier near Mukachevo is a piece of cake compared with the Sculeni border crossing, where the line between Romania and the former Soviet republic of Moldova divides people who share the same ethnicity and speak the same language. There, one of the newest fads is the fake Schengen visa, crafted by expert Moldovan counterfeiters. Romanian border guard Dan Barbacaru shows off one passport confiscated from a Moldovan who'd previously used it to enter the EU, where unsuspecting German officials gave it the stamp of approval. The cost for such a visa, in effect a ticket to all of Europe? Anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000, according to Barbacaru. For Moldovans desperate to work in Europe, that sum is willingly paid. "At least 40 percent of my village is gone," says 43-year-old Ivan Postu, who sells peaches by the roadside in the hamlet of Rasvet, not far from the Romanian border. "They're in Italy, Russia, Ukraine--wherever they can find work."

Striving to conform with EU guidelines, Romania last year started requiring Moldovans to use passports, whereas before an ID card was enough. Relations with its smaller neighbor have since soured considerably, and so it is elsewhere. All over the region, trade across leaky borders serves as an important safety net in places where economic decline has continued unchecked. Hundreds of thousands of Belarussians bolster their meager incomes by carrying bottles of vodka or tins of condensed milk into Poland or Lithuania. For most of the past decade, none of them needed visas. But now the Lithuanians and the Poles are cracking down in order to conform with EU requirements--often with tragicomic results, considering that locals often share family and cultural ties with people on the other side of the border.

At the Pabrade camp for illegal migrants in Lithuania, for instance, one of the inmates turns out to be... a Lithuanian. The man was so used to moving back and forth over the border with neighboring Belarus that he usually made the trip without any documents. It didn't matter before--until he was recently picked up by his own border police when he tried to cross back to Lithuania. "People make their livings from smuggling," says Mark Lenzi, an academic and former diplomat who specializes in the region. "When the hard border goes up, you're going to see a lot of disgruntled people. That's why Lithuanian membership in the EU is going to have a much stronger effect on everyday people's lives than Lithuanian membership in NATO."

Such frictions have already burst to the surface in Kaliningrad. The vast majority of the enclave's Russians eke out a livelihood by trading--some of it legal, most not--with their non-Russian neighbors. This cutoff bit of Russia is a legacy of the second world war, when the Soviet Union claimed the former capital of the German province of East Prussia. The territory's peculiar position, separated from Mother Russia by the restored Baltic states, didn't cause problems when Poland was still part of the communist bloc and Lithuania was inside the Soviet Union. Nor did it matter for most of the past decade, since the countries that surrounded it were happy to keep entry barriers low for Kaliningraders. Today, an estimated 80 percent of Kaliningraders under the age of 25 have visited Central Europe, while only 25 percent have been to Russia itself.

That freedom of movement could be abruptly curtailed once the EU cordon goes up, and no one seems to know how to resolve the geographical tangle. Moscow insists that, as Russians, Kaliningraders should be able to travel to and from their homeland along special "visa-free corridors," not unlike those that once linked isolated Berlin to West Germany. Anything else, says Russian President Vladimir Putin, would violate Russian sovereignty. The EU responds that such corridors would infringe upon Lithuania's sovereignty, and proposes instead a more liberal visa regime for Kaliningraders than for other Russians. The dispute is all the more ironic when you consider that Eastern enlargement should ideally bring the EU and Russia closer together. During a recent speech in Moscow, the European Commission's foreign-policy czar Chris Patten noted a striking statistic: the EU will account for half of Russia's trade once the new members have joined up. He added that the three Baltic states will bring 1.5 million ethnic Russians into the EU.

What can the EU do to cope with threats to stability and security from elsewhere in the region? Hard to say. Distracted by larger and more urgent debates about EU reform and strategies for integrating the new members, Brussels has been slow in waking up to the problem. As usual, it's responded with money, helping candidate countries to equip their border guards with patrol boats, Nissan jeeps, computer equipment and night-vision devices. The EU has also been pressing them to move toward a common strategy on organized crime and illegal migration--which the EU itself has failed to do. For example: persuading countries to come up with "readmission agreements" that would allow for the deportation of migrants back to the countries they entered from. Right now, the Ukrainians can send migrants back to Russia only if the culprits' passports contain visa stamps showing that they passed through Russia on their way in. In fact, most nelegaly, as they're known, throw their documents away before they even get near the border.

The larger challenge is dealing with countries that have pushed themselves into isolation with questionable policies. A prime example is Belarus, where President Lukashenko has been feuding with the West ever since the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe accused him of stealing last year's election. Since the beginning of the year he's barred three OSCE monitors from the country. Meanwhile his harassment of political opponents continues apace. A Belarussian court recently sentenced two journalists to jail for publishing uncomplimentary comments about the president. The son of a former prime minister and opposition leader recently ended up in prison on charges of theft, in a trial that some international observers consider suspect. Worse, Belarus has gained a reputation as a source of high-tech weaponry for rogue states, including Iraq. The U.S. government has publicly accused Belarus of training military personnel for Saddam Hussein--specifically in the operation of S-300 air- defense missiles--as well as selling arms to suspected terrorists. For its part, Belarus seems conspicuously uninterested in securing its border, which it won't even demarcate, despite pleas from the Baltics.

In tiny Moldova, the main hurdle is brute poverty--not to mention a Moscow-supported separatist movement that has helped to keep the country divided and weak. Things look somewhat better in Ukraine. In sharp contrast to Belarus, this once rich country, formerly famed as the "breadbasket of Europe," recently held a more or less democratic election that resulted in significant gains for the reform-minded opposition. Ukraine can also point to healthy economic growth over the past two years. Yet while its neighbors aspire to membership in the EU, some of Ukraine's recent high jinks have better qualified it for pariah status. President Leonid Kuchma was virtually declared persona non grata by the West after being implicated in the killing of an opposition journalist two years ago; his attempted fiddling with election results hasn't helped, either. Last year Kiev's air-defense forces managed to inadvertently shoot down a civilian Russian airliner--and made the scandal worse by denying responsibility until the bitter end. Meanwhile, the international corruption-watchdog Transparency International still ranks Ukraine near the bottom of its corruption index--below kleptocracies like Zimbabwe and Ecuador. "The government can say what it likes, but the fact is that this country's main export is crime," says a Westerner in Kiev, referring to the country's reputation for smuggling, money laundering, illegal-weapons dealing and more.

Ukrainian officials admit they've got a long way to go, but argue that the EU's best bet is a policy of engagement. Unlike Belarus, Ukraine seeks to join both the EU and NATO one day, and insists that a bit of encouragement might help to clean up its act. Aleksandr Chaly, who heads the government's EU integration effort, offers an example. Portugal and Spain each harbor some 100,000 Ukrainian migrant workers. Most of those in Spain are there illegally, he says. By contrast, most of those in Portugal are legal, thanks to a diplomatic accord between Lisbon and Kiev. "In the modern world," Chaly concludes, "it doesn't make sense to isolate a country like Ukraine."

Perhaps. But if the policy wonks in Brussels really want to understand the implications of the EU's expansion to the east, they'd do well to visit Eisiskes, a village between Lithuania and Belarus that entirely lives up to its reputation as a smugglers' paradise--not least because the people on both sides are ethnic Poles, and often members of the same extended family. Andrei and Vitaly, in their late 20s, are typical. They're "unemployed," meaning they make their living primarily by bringing contraband vodka over the border from Belarus, where it's much cheaper than in Lithuania. For a mere $10 the pair will be happy to show where you can slip over the border without being noticed. Here, on the Lithuanian side, it's marked by a couple of boulders and a few iron rods linked with plastic tape. Europe, say hello to the Brave New World.