“Borderland is a complex and constantly changing social phenomenon”

22.02.2019

In his monograph "Russian Border Regions: Neighbourhood Challenges" (so far published in Russian only), Vladimir Kolosov explores how integration processes and political challenges on the international and regional levels influence the development of Russian borderlands. He focuses on the changes in the demographic, social, economic, environmental, institutional, geopolitical, and discursive aspects of each border region.

What is the long-term research project in your book about?

Our team has studied the post-Soviet border region since the early 1990s. We began a number of national and international projects and participated in three major projects supported by the EU Framework Programmes. In the last five years our lab has focused on the project ‘Russian Border Regions: Neighbourhood Challenges’, funded by the Russian Science Foundation. In the project, we pursued an ambitious goal of comparing challenges in the neighbourhood—in other words, opportunities and benefits in the border areas as well as risks and problems associated with an extended and diverse Russian land border region. Russia borders sixteen countries (if we consider two states recognised by the Russian government, Abkhazia and South Ossetia), which gives Russia the highest number of neighbouring states in the world.

Our results produced a number of findings. First, borderland is a complex and constantly changing social phenomenon. Its functions, regime, and meaning in domestic and foreign policy are constantly being redefined according to changes in the relations between neighbouring countries, currency values, securities prices on the stock exchange, and other factors and events. The phenomenon mirrors international relations and is known in the literature as ‘bordering’.

Second, cross-border relations and cooperation strongly depend on such subjective factors as identity and the perceptions that neighbours have of each other. Those perceptions in turn depend on the current political discourse and are embodied in the cultural symbols in the border region (since the border region is a country’s showcase). We prepared a digital multimedia atlas of the Russian borderland, containing about 100 interactive maps, which will soon be available on the website of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Science.

What are the significant features of the key border regions in Russia?

It is difficult to consider any of the Russian border regions more important than the others. The border with the European Union is very important, as is the borderline with Belarus and Kazakhstan, two leading countries in the Eurasian Economic Union. The Russian-Chinese border, one of the longest in the world, is also crucial in light of the new eastward orientation of Russian external politics. China’s rapid development has resulted in many interesting processes in that border area.

The situation along the Ukrainian border has dramatically changed, with the frontier’s barrier function sharply increasing. Ukraine is denying entry to its territory for Russian male citizens aged between sixteen and sixty, and formalities have become more complicated for other categories of citizens as well. This has resulted in an asymmetric movement of populations between the two countries, with more Ukrainians coming to Russia than Russians entering Ukraine. Cross-border cooperation has ceased. Trans-boundary circulation of trains and buses has fallen, and flights have long been stopped. Borderline regions have suffered a considerable economic loss as a result of the conflict between the two countries.

Nonetheless, it has been impossible to make the border impenetrable because of family ties and the employment of Ukrainian citizens in Russia. Compensatory trade between Russia and Ukraine has been increasing since the end of 2016.

The Russian-Estonian border is another example of continuing trans-boundary relations, which have been at their lowest since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the need to solve common problems brings both countries to the negotiation table. The main issues include setting quotas for fishing in Lake Peipus, creating favourable conditions for family visits, and regulating tourism to Estonia from St Petersburg and other parts of Russia.

What research methods did you use in your studies of Russian border regions?

We used methods of human geography, namely statistical and cartographic analysis. We also applied sociological methods, such as surveys, interviews (around 600 since 2010), and focus groups. We studied the opinions of the local populations in two towns north of Crimea—Armiansk and Dzhankoi—about the consequences of the new border. We focused on their perceptions of recent events and current relations between Ukraine and Russia. These two towns are comparable in terms of population size, but they differ in function and social structure. The population in each town is ethnically diverse, which is why our focus groups were designed on the basis of social status, occupations, or ethnicity, for example Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars. We also conducted focus groups in the border regions between Russia and Kazakhstan and between Russia and China.

In our analysis of press of different political orientations, published over the last twenty years, we have applied quantitative and qualitative discourse-analysis techniques for examining newspaper articles on borders, transborder cooperation, and government-led bordering. Field studies were of utmost importance: we found it useful to visit and directly observe the borders and settlements on both sides.

What influence did the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have on the research with respect to other border areas of Russia?

The events of 2014 have brought many changes, often for the worse. The year divided the post-Soviet period into ‘before’ and ‘after’, although the causes of the changes had started to accumulate long before the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine, Russia’s closest neighbour, has become a hostile country; two unrecognised people’s republics have emerged—Luhansk and Donetsk—whose future status will long remain uncertain; and tensions between Russia and the West have escalated. Current events in the EU could hardly be labelled positive. Recent events have had a global impact, influencing the process of Eurasian integration, relations with China, and cross-border cooperation with Russia’s other neighbours.

Which results of the research would be of most interest to the European reader?

Although the volume of trade between Russia and the EU has significantly fallen as a result of sanctions, the union remains Russia’s main trading partner. Despite worsening EU-Russia relations, transborder cooperation between Russia and EU member states has not only continued but also evolved into a new format, with an agreement specifying the duration of the next cooperation programme. Similar to previous programmes, the countries will co-finance their common projects. Multilateral programmes have been replaced by bilateral ones, for example between Kaliningrad Oblast and Poland or between Kaliningrad Oblast and Lithuania.

Russian participants in the programmes have gained valuable experience from the shared projects. New stable networks have developed. This gives hope that the situation will improve and that transborder cooperation may be the locomotive of such an improvement.


Vladimir Kolosov is a professor, deputy director, and head of the Centre of Geopolitical Studies at the Institute of Geography, and head of the Department of Geography of World Economy at Moscow State University. His research interests include borders and bordering in the post-Soviet space.


Vladimir Kolosov (ed.), Российское пограничье: Вызовы соседства (Russian Border Regions: Neighbourhood Challenges), Москва 2018.