ZOiS Spotlight 17/2023

Lived Geopolitics: Grain Logistics Between the War and the Border

by Claudia Eggart 20/09/2023

At the border triangle between Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, truck drivers have been waiting up to 16 days for customs checks since the beginning of the war. As well as being an ordeal for those affected, this situation encourages corruption and exposes the geopolitical conflicts of the different power centres.

Queues in the border triangle between Ukraine, Moldova and Romania. Claudia Eggart

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

The Odesa region is one of the most productive grain cultivation areas in Europe. Ukraine is a leading grain exporter, supplying around 45 million tonnes to the global markets annually. However, the outbreak of war led to the temporary closure of commercial operations at the port of Odesa, one of the key transshipment centres for exports of the golden corn. Exports were rerouted via two ports on the Danube River – Reni in Ukraine and Galați in Romania – and the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanța in order to maintain essential supplies.

As a consequence, traffic at the land borders surged by 400 per cent, with long queues forming in the triangle connecting Ukraine with Romania via Moldova. Overnight, the once sleepy border crossing at Giurgiulești became a pinch point on the grain and oil exports’ overland journey to the global markets. No one seemed to be concerned about the increasingly frustrated truck drivers who faced a lengthy wait at the border, a circumstance which is perhaps best summed up by a comment from a Ukrainian trucker with whom I spoke on the Moldovan side of the border in July 2022: ‘The world is worried that people in Africa will suffer without our grain and oil, but no one bothers about the people who are actually transporting it.’

By now, waiting time at the border crossing point between the three countries averaged 10-16 days. With temperatures as high as 45 ˚C, the long wait was not only exhausting, but posed a serious risk to health. A driver had collapsed and died a few days earlier, I was told as we hunkered down in the narrow strip of shade between the overheated vehicles. The truckers were obviously pleased that my field research provided them with a distraction, but they were under no illusions that a report about the state of affairs at the border would do anything to improve matters. And yet simply providing washing and toilet facilities, sunshades and water stations would have made a real difference. The truckers told me that some of the local residents had taken pity on them and supplied them with free food and water, but this was not a permanent solution.

Geopolitics and border routines

Why, I wondered, had nothing been done to expedite the customs checks? And why were the truckers still having to wait in such appalling conditions, despite the increasingly vocal complaints about garbage and exhaust fumes from residents in the nearby village of Giurgiulești on the Moldovan side? In my search for answers, it soon became clear that historical and geopolitical tensions often come into play when questions such as these are discussed. The Danube region is ethnically diverse – just like the drivers who came from the region, but also from Turkey, South Caucasus and Central Asia. With such an eclectic group, geopolitical conflicts quickly become visible on a small scale. Some of the truckers I spoke to maintained that Ukraine would be in a much better situation today if it had joined the customs union with Russia back in 2013. An older trucker from Transnistria reminisced about the good old days of the Soviet Union, prompting his colleague from Chișinău to retort that Transnistria was a dinosaur – dying out and refusing to move with the times. Moldova’s future was in the EU, he said – no doubt about it. At this point, a trucker from Turkey interjected, reminding us in broken Russian that the EU could not be trusted: Turkey had been waiting to join the EU for years and had had its fill of the endless stalling. Anyone who had ever waited at the Turkish-Bulgarian border knew only too well that customs procedures hadn’t improved one jot during that time. However, there was one issue on which everyone agreed: the Romanians were to blame for the long waiting time. ‘Since they joined the EU, they have never missed an opportunity to lord it over us,’ complained a trucker from Gagauzia, a southern Moldovan region which once aspired to become an autonomous territory, adding: ‘The EU shouldn’t let them treat us like this.’

EU aspirations?

It would be too easy to put all the blame on Romania, I was told by the Deputy Director of the Customs Service in Chișinău. The reasons were far more complex and often had to do with years of underfunding of staff and logistics on all sides. For example, the process of digitalising customs checks had been impeded by issues as simple as a lack of computer workstations. Nevertheless, he hoped that with the launch of the Solidarity Lanes to support goods exports from Ukraine and the generous budget provided by the EU for war-related infrastructural development, the road freight situation would soon improve, even though much of the funding was earmarked for the expansion of rail links.

In March this year, I returned to the border at Giurgiulești. It soon became apparent that the waiting time had not noticeably decreased – despite the simplified customs procedures and the grain deal now in force. In my conversations with border officials who were on duty when I visited, I was told that the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) had been aware of the truckers’ plight since summer 2022 and had promised to provide relief. So far, however, no help had been forthcoming. The mood was depressing – not only because there were still no washing and toilet facilities but also because the increased volume of traffic had led to a surge in bribe-taking at the border. The sums being demanded were outrageous, I was told, especially on the Ukrainian side, with truckers often expected to cover these costs out of their own pockets. For the drivers, it was clear that the EU would not be able to tackle the notoriously corrupt structures.

Looking beyond the centres of power

Border regimes and large-scale infrastructure projects offer diverse insights into power relations at the macropolitical level. By contrast, minor players such as logistics workers are rarely the subject of social science studies. Instead, attention is still focused primarily on geopolitical discourses that take place in global centres of power. And while this discourse level is important, the microanalysis of lived experience shows that it is the seeming periphery and the narratives that unfold on the margins that can provide a clearer understanding of the intricacies of geopolitical (conflict) regions. Where the interdependence of global and local forces is not taken seriously, voids are created that are all too easily filled with preconceptions and simplifications. This is how existing power structures are reproduced; a dynamic which, in turn, also elicits reactions among those who feel overlooked, misunderstood or exploited.

Russia’s suspension of the grain deal and the relentless shelling of grain warehouses and ports in the Odesa region are fresh reminders of the brutality and uncompromising stance of the Russian aggressors. The attacks on the port in Reni ushered in a new level of escalation in this war, firstly due to its direct proximity to Moldova and Romania, the latter a NATO member, and secondly, because they send a clear message about Russia’s intentions, namely the targeted derailment of the grain exports. This means that the queues of trucks waiting at the border are also potential targets. Despite this threat, logistics chains are depicted in the media as dehumanised objects that move – sometimes more quickly, sometimes more slowly – through fully automated border infrastructures. But logistics workers are not faceless service providers whose experiences and realities of life are irrelevant to the course of history. Researchers and politicians should be taking the knowledge and experience available at the micro level seriously. The nuances that are then revealed offer a strategic advantage over autocratic terrorist regimes such as Russia – and are essential in building popular support for a credible EU.

Claudia Eggart is a researcher and part of the project 'LimSpaces – Living with Uncertainty: Strategies of Adaptation and Horizons of Expectations in Ukraine and Moldova' at ZOiS. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Manchester.