When we write about such phenomena as governance across borders, our conceptualisation always hinges on dividing lines, those borders which governance may span. Especially for a research group working on transnational institutions, it’s important to contemplate: What do borders really mean?

The reality of borders takes on a wholly different dimension when leaving the comfort of Western Europe, with its checkpoint-free border crossings. Travelling along Europe’s (still somewhat wild) Eastern frontier, the significance of national boundaries and the institutions that sometimes do, sometimes don’t span them, is illuminated starkly, highlighting what one takes for granted.

Here, I’ll be sharing some – hopefully not too wanton – snapshots and insights into the fascinating institutional landscape which I encountered during some recent travels.

Borders and Boundaries

To a worldly-wise Western European, most borders may feel like simple lines in the sand. They are crossed with ease, at best noticeable through insignificant changes in signposting, road rules, and potentially a different language of choice, with English always as a fallback option. Even the alpine fortress Switzerland doesn’t ask for a passport anymore.

As I learned from Perry Anderson, before the dawning of nationalism, national borders were usually just de jure demarcations of one’s potentate’s and another’s realms of jurisdiction. De facto, as one got further away from centres of power, the influence of governmental institutions would decrease toward zero, and many border regions were wide swathes of lawlessness and freedom, offering refuge to all sorts of enemies of the state, runaway serfs and highwaymen.

Nowadays, borders are quite the opposite: tightly-regulated strips of land where the authority of state institutions is elevated and felt more strongly than elsewhere. Where the state enforces its monopoly over who may enter (or leave) its territory, general levels of suspicion mount and usual civil liberties are restricted.


Last bar in the EU!

The borders of countries like Ukraine, Moldova or Serbia may not be what they used be – highly effective at keeping people in – but they still are effective at instilling a sense of nervousness, powerlessness, frustration and annoyance in anyone who dares cross them. Sure, that may still be the norm in many parts of the world, but for a free-moving citizen of the “Federal Republic of Schengen” it might be a shock.

Incomprehensibly long queues are followed by intrusive checks, procedures are arbitrary and seemingly endless as one is directed back and forth by gruff officials (wearing gigantic, impressive hats) from counter to counter and office to office to fetch various slips of paper, fill in others and get even other ones stamped… And all this without any notion of what each part of the process may actually signify.

You quickly learn the value of two things: first, knowing some Russian (or rather, the pain of not knowing any); and second, having your paperwork in impeccable order.

Yet even between Moldova and Ukraine, hundreds of kilometres from its own borders, the EU is still visible. It’s hard to tell what the actual effect of the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) has been, but at least it’s persuaded officials to post signs informing travellers about the “Standards of culture of border control: lawfulness, mutuality,politeness, competence.” In reality, there might still be some standard-setting to do.

430 metres can be quite a long way

The significance of borders really dawns on you if, perchance, you happen to be travelling from Ukraine to Romania along the main highway from Odessa to Bucharest. It leads through a miniscule piece of the Republic of Moldova, which Moldova gained by swapping several square kilometres with Ukraine in 1998. This tiny, 430-meter piece of turf called Giurgiulesti, is Moldova’s access to the river Danube and to international waters (though supposedly finished since 2006, the port really doesn’t look anything like this impressive official 3d presentation).

By classic national-boundary logic, this national boundary really is a national boundary, with the whole shebang. To cross those 430 metres along the main highway, one must complete all formalities to enter Moldova, and then again complete all formalities to leave Moldova. Because borders are borders, right? No wonder the road is practically empty, and trade between Ukraine and Romania is less than Ukraine and Turkmenistan.

It’s surely simple tough luck if you happen to arouse the curiosity of the bored customs officials at this desolate spot, and if they happen to be in a mood to return the favours dealt to their compatriots every time they travel west: a nerve-wrenching four-hour procedure which really teaches the meaning of “border control”. Go through at least twenty different steps of slip-collecting, stamp-getting and form-filling before watching everything being taken out of your car, every bag emptied and searched, every book flipped through, every item of your wallet inspected… and then repeat all of the above, just for good measure! – or maybe the officials were just waiting for a bribe?

Lesson learned: in the East, 430 metres between two lines in the sand still really mean something.

A small note on language

Whether language – as such – is an institution, is debatable, but I would definitely argue that English as global lingua franca truly is a transnational institution. The modern traveller relies on being able to get around most parts of the world using her/his basic knowledge of the English language. Think again, arrogant Westerner!

Analyse this!

The further east in Europe, the more Russian is lingua franca. Of course that’s the heritage of the good old Soviet days, but even in decidedly anti-Russian Moldova – Russia is oft-hated not least because of the latent Transnistria conflict, as a result of which several thousand Russian “peace troops” remain stationed east of the river Dniestr – the language of default between any two strangers is Russian.

Sure, young, studenty types will speak amazing English (and even want to buy you a beer) and many restaurants sport English menus, but outside of major urban areas approaching anyone with English will at best get you a “ja nje panimaju” (I don’t understand). And that applies especially to dealings with representatives of the state, such as border officials or the police, who remain thoroughly unimpressed. Na sdarovje!