By Paul Goble
Twenty-eight years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, an event that for many promised the end of a divided Europe and the possibility of a continent united whole and free. But today, walls, fences, and barbed wire are going up along Russia’s western border, a process that experts say will be completed by 2020.
The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 by the East German government to stem the massive exodus of its population to the west. It succeeded in reducing the outflow to a trickle, although at least 5,000 people made it to the West alive while many others were killed in the attempt.
In June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to show his good faith by tearing down the wall; and just over two years later, the wall was breached and then abandoned after many East Germans made a successful end run around in through other East European countries.
Many assumed that the fall of the Berlin Wall would mark the end of efforts to divide people by such constructions, but that has not been the case. According to Gazeta journalist Rustm Falyakhov, there are now “new fewer than 70 artificial barriers” at borders between countries around the world (gazeta.ru/business/2017/11/09/10976528.shtml).
These barriers, which include walls, chain-link fences, and barbed wire emplacements, are often extremely expensive and what is more extremely ineffective given that people rapidly learn how to go around or even through them. But many governments playing on the fears of their populations continue to press for the construction of more such barriers.
What is especially striking to the Moscow journalist is that Russia’s western neighbors from Finland and Estonia in the north to Ukraine in the south are actively building these barriers and that despite the expense and the likelihood that people will find ways around them, “by 2020, the western borders of Russia will be fenced off along their entire perimeter.”
In response, Russia has enhanced its border defenses with similar kinds of walls and fences and plans to do even more. All of this does not constitute a new Berlin Wall, but it does underscore the rise of a new division in Europe, this time not between the Soviet Union and the West but between the Russian Federation and its western neighbors.
What is interesting, Falyakhov says, is that numerous commercial enterprises, advertised on the Internet, have emerged to help people get through these barriers and then return. The existence of such services will likely lead some to demand even higher walls and more barbed wire, but they suggest human ingenuity will likely prevent any wall from being totally effective.