Border Fence: Mobility, Infrastucture, and Geopolitics in the Latvian-Russian Borderlands 20 December 2017 – 19 December 2019

Overview

In 2015, the Latvian State Border Guard began to construct a fence on the Latvian-Russian border. Coinciding with fences going up on multiple European borders, the Latvian fence was perceived by outside observers as a response to the “migration/refugee crisis”. However, the Latvian State Border Guard insisted that the fence was planned long ago as part of routine border infrastructure.

The construction of the fence also coincided with increased political tensions between NATO and Russia as a result of annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. Thus many observers in Russia and the West interpreted the Latvian fence as a symbolic demarcation of the new “Iron Curtain”. In response, the Latvian authorities once again insisted that the fence was not related to geopolitical tensions, but was rather part of standard border infrastructure.

The Latvian border fence, then, is simultaneously claimed to be part of border infrastructure, a technology of governing migration, and a symbolic demarcation of post-Cold War geopolitical formations. The proposed project will investigate all three of these interlinked dimensions of the Latvian border fence through ethnographic fieldwork on and around the Grebņeva/Ubylinka section of the Latvian-Russian border. More specifically, the project will examine the concrete practices, as well as the ideological and political contradictions and tensions, of building a liberal democratic state at the outer edges of a state that is itself the outer edge of the “international liberal order”.

Photo credit: Dace Dzenovska

Principal Investigator

Dace Dzenovska

Funder

John Fell Fund

Countries

Latvia, Russia

Topics

BordersEuropean UnionPoliticsTransnationalism

Regions

Theory

In September 2015, Latvia announced a plan to build a 2.7 m-high fence along especially vulnerable sections of its 276 km-long border with Russia, amounting to 90 km of fence altogether. The building of the fence was to commence as soon as possible and be completed in 2019. It would cost about 17 million euros. Coinciding with fences going up on multiple intra-European borders, the Latvian fence was perceived by outside observers as a response to the “migration/refugee crisis.” The Latvian State Border Guard, however, insisted that the fence was planned long ago as part of routine border infrastructure.

The construction of the fence also coincided with increased political tensions between NATO and Russia as a result of annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. Thus many observers in Russia and the West interpreted the Latvian fence as a symbolic demarcation of the new “Iron Curtain”. In response, the Latvian authorities once again insisted that the fence was not related to geopolitical tensions, but was rather part of standard border infrastructure.

In a forthcoming book (Dzenovska 2018), I have argued that Europe’s liberal democratic polities are based on a fundamental tension between the need to exclude and the requirement to profess and institutionalize the value of inclusion.  This tension is most apparent at the hard edges of the state, such as the border, where border guards continuously negotiate the contradictory demands of security and openness. This tension is even more apparent on newly formed borders that are perceived to be in need of both securitization and civilization (Follis 2011). For example, from the liberal perspective, border securitization, especially in the form of fences, suggests an unwelcome closure of borders, thus inviting critique in liberal-left media and scholarship (e.g. Bigo 2002). However, the Latvian State Border Guard insists that the Latvian fence is a routine element of border infrastructure of a liberal democratic state rather than a spontaneous border closure that indicates a reactionary ideological shift. Thus, Research Objective 1 is to investigate the foundational contradictions of liberal democratic states as they become apparent on the outer edges of a postsocialist state still struggling for its liberal credentials.

Research Objective 2 adds another dimension to this analysis and investigates the relationship between post-Cold War power configurations and contemporary forms of the liberal democratic state in Europe. The project will examine practices and infrastructures of bordering in a moment when internal “crisis of liberalism” is externalized in the form of renewed geopolitical tensions between Russia and “the West”. How do the fundamental tensions of liberalism play out on the outer edges of a state that is itself the outer edge of the “international liberal order”?

Research Objective 3 aims to bring the historically and ethnographically specific case of the Latvian border fence to bear upon analysis of border fences as symptoms of shifts in forms of statehood and sovereignty in conditions of intensified globalisation (e.g. Brown 2010).

Research Objective 4 pertains to developing the larger research agenda on geopolitics and mobility by laying ground for Project 2, entitled “Emptiness and Empire in the Latvian-Russian Borderlands”, and thus also for the ERC grant application.

Methods

In order to achieve Research Objectives 1, 2, and 3, I will conduct ethnographic fieldwork on the Grebņeva/Ubylinka section of the Latvian-Russian border and the adjacent villages on both Latvian and the Russian sides of the border. Through interviews and participant observation, I will seek to understand how those building, guarding, and living nearby the border experience and make sense of the border and the border fence, as well as how they relate to the various interpretations of the border by Latvian, Russian, and Western media. I will focus in particular on the daily and seemingly mundane material practices of the border guards, through which I hope to connect the interlinked dimensions of the border as infrastructure, as technology of government, and as a symbolic demarcation of post-Cold War geopolitical formations.