For Poland, Promises of Riches Awaits as Eastern Border’s Destitute Look West

BOBROWNIKI, Poland – Time appears to have forgotten the hamlets that dot the back roads along Poland’s eastern border. The few villagers, mostly babushkas in headscarves, pass the days sitting on benches in front of their sagging wooden houses. 

The rest of Poland, however, is relentlessly pushing forward to secure the country’s place as a full-fledged member of the West. When Poland joins the European Union – perhaps as early as 2004 – the 700-mile eastern border will become the gateway to the riches of Western Europe. Behind it will lie the poverty and chaos of the east. 

In July, the Polish government concluded negotiations with the EU on border controls. Warsaw agreed to continue improvements on its eastern border, including beefing up personnel and adding high-tech surveillance equipment. In addition, Poland plans to start requiring visas from Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians next summer. 

“Visas should be cheap, easy to obtain, and multientry,” said Lieutenant Colonel Zbigniew Noskiewicz, commander of the border unit at Bobrowniki, betraying a common Polish sympathy for less fortunate neighbors to the east. 

Yet Polish visa regulations will most certainly follow strict criteria set by the EU. As most member states have dismantled border checks between EU countries, it has become all the more necessary for Western Europe’s outer borders to be impenetrable. Visitors arriving from Belarus at the state-of-the-art Bobrowniki border facility will one day be able to travel all the way to Portugal without having to show their passports to another immigration officer. 

During the Cold War, Poland’s eastern border was lined with a system of Russian-built fences, guard towers, and ditches designed to prevent Soviet citizens from fleeing. Until 1993, there wasn’t a border crossing at Bobrowniki. 

Today, Belarussians or Ukrainians need only prove that they have at least $125 to cover the costs of their visit. But when Poland flings open its western border after EU accession, the back door to the east is sure to slam shut. 

Illegal immigration is considered the biggest problem. Last year, border guards stopped 3,576 people trying to enter Poland illegally from the east. 

Some migrants, many of whom intend to cross through Poland only on their westward trek, have tried digging tunnels under the border. Others have attempted getting across river borders by boat. As a result, the border guards plan to increase their numbers to 18,000 and overhaul infrastructure by buying infrared cameras, aircraft, and the latest communications technology. 

“The fact we’re making the border safer doesn’t mean we’re digging a moat around Poland,” insisted Lieutenant Colonel Wojciech Lechowski, a spokesman of the Polish Border Guards in Warsaw. “By adopting EU conditions, we’re making our border guards more efficient – and nothing more.” 

In Poland, a country whose frontiers have shifted numerous times over the centuries, borders are a sensitive topic. And Poles, who for decades were locked out of the West by the Iron Curtain, feel a certain responsibility toward Belarus and Ukraine. The two fledgling states now find themselves caught in the geopolitical gray zone Poland traditionally occupied between Russia and Western Europe. The more rigorous border regime will also have effects in everyday economic terms, since many families in the border region rely on small-time smuggling or “suitcase trading” for their livelihoods. 

In a recent study, the Gdansk Institute for Market Economics estimates that Poland’s surplus in suitcase trading – conducted by individuals shuttling to market with only the wares they can carry in a bag – accounted for $2.2 billion last year. Once visa requirements are introduced for Poland’s eastern neighbors, the report predicts a substantial reduction in such commerce, with ripple effects on the economy on both sides of the border. 

At the open-air market at Jurowecka Stadium in Bialystok, the largest city in northeastern Poland, the traders gather every day. Their stands are filled with polyester garments, cheap electronics, rip-off designer cosmetics, and other products. 

“The Russians sell their vodka and cigarettes under the table,” said Anna Bouzid, a young Polish woman offering watches for $7 on sale. “They are the first to come and the last to go, rain or shine.” 

Few of the foreign traders were willing to chat about business. But one clothing vendor from Hrodna, Belarus, who insisted on anonymity, explained that he typically stays in Poland for two to three days at a time. When he runs out of wares, he travels to the markets in Moscow. 

“If I need a Polish visa, I’m not sure what will happen,” said the father of two. “I won’t know how to make ends meet.” The unemployed machine repairman said he makes about $130 per month. 

The trying life of a shuttle trader is no novelty for Poles. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of thousands of Poles have gone west to offer Western Europeans cheap goods and cheap labor. With the money and experience gained abroad, they helped plant a seed for Poland’s phenomenal economic growth in the 1990s. 

Janusz Reiter, head of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, remembers that a little more than a decade ago, there was hardly any difference between Poland and the Soviet republics to the east. “Now, when I come from Ukraine to Poland, I feel like I’m crossing the border between two worlds,” Reiter said. 

He said Poles should start to regard their insight on Eastern Europe as an original contribution to the EU. Yet he also suggested that Poles have no reason to feel apologetic about a tightly controlled border to Belarus or Ukraine. 

“The best thing Poland can do for these countries is to be successful, have a strong economy, and be a good example,” he said. 

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