The Wall shouldn’t Separate!
Jagienka Wilczak

It is not only the sun which rises and sets earlier on the EU’s eastern border. A common rhythm has still to be found; and it is not simply a matter of longitude. In the border district of Wolhynien, the Polish cemetery in the Ukrainian village of Pawliwka is a symbol of reconciliation, while Ukrainians can also visit Pawłokom to mourn their dead in the cemetery there. The wartime and post-war feuds are at last being interred. The neighbours are looking forward to a shared future: Ukrainian politicians have been attending work experience with their Polish counterparts, to learn the basics of democracy. This even contributed to the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Polish Visas are amongst the most desirable documents to have in the Ukraine, and local organised crime is becoming increasingly involved in the supply of them. Contemplating a wider horizon still provides the best perspective and it shows the things which must inevitably come; above all the youth on either side of the border believe this.

Poland’s accession to the European Union has placed the Polish town of Przemyśl on the Union’s easternmost border. It is just a few kilometres from here to Medyka, the crossing into the Ukraine. Przemyśl, which before the First World War was the most important garrison town in Galicia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now depends on the border for its existence.

This border was once tightly sealed. However, since Poland recognised the independence of the Ukraine, it has developed vibrantly, on one side just as much as the other. Polish politicians of all colours fought for the ease of travel over this border, and for good neighbourly relations on both sides. Trade flourished. The sports stadium in Przemyśl became the home of the largest weekly market in the East; in nearly every house, rooms were let; in nearly every courtyard there was a rudimentary canteen. These days are over now. The traffic over the border is still growing but, according to the customs officials, things are more civilised now, how they should be on an EU border. Nevertheless, there is still a constant stream of money through the town, both legal and illegal, primarily from the smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol.

Over the years the Poles and Ukrainians who populate the border area have grown closer. Prejudices, hate and enmity fade very slowly, and for centuries it was such feelings that characterised the difficult relations in this neighbourhood, especially during the years of the Second World War, so tragic for the Poles, and in the post-war years. In this region, the bloody fighting continued for several years after. Now, dialogue and reconciliation have begun in an effort to forget the injustices suffered by both sides and to remember the graves of their dead and murdered. In the Ukrainian part of Wolhynia, the Polish cemetery of Pawliwka is a symbol of the peace. And the Ukrainian cemetery in Pawłokom on the Polish side was consecrated with great ceremony.

For a long time, Poland delayed the introduction of visas for Ukrainians. A visa is expensive and there was a justifiable fear that the visa system would restrict the free traffic and contacts and slow down the changing of attitudes. At the highest level, Warsaw has supported Kiev in its ambitions to join the West. However, some more profound changes have taken place below, where local communities began to work together. Local politicians from the Ukraine attended training and gained practical experience in Polish towns and parishes; as far as possible, they transferred their new experiences to their own districts where they had to build a civil society from scratch.

People found out that they were capable of making things happen, that through the ballot box, they could influence the fate of their local communities. These were the people who supported the Orange Revolution in 2004. Brussels applied pressure over the visa issue and since October 2003, visas have been obligatory for Ukrainians entering Poland. However, they remain free of charge and Poles can still cross into the Ukraine without a visa. By contrast, Byelorussians do have to pay for their Polish visas and, in return, a Byelorussian visa for Poles costs six dollars and a two-day wait. An express visa which can be processed within a few hours, costs eleven dollars. In the Byelorussian consulate in Biała Podlaska, other EU citizens can also get a visa.

Reducing the Queues

With the introduction of the travel requirements, people started to form queues in front of the Polish consulates in Lviv (Polish Lwów) and Luzk, 80 kilometres from the border in western Ukraine. And the queues are still growing. To accelerate the flow of people and goods, an electronic registration system was introduced in Lviv. A Polish visa is still a highly desirable document; so much so that criminals have found a lucrative field in front of the consulates simply selling places in the queues. Anyone who can name a destination and whose papers are in order is entitled to a visa. For school pupils and Ukrainians studying in Poland, the route is usually shorter, as it is too for people on official business. Moreover, the visa is not a free ticket to travel throughout the Schengen countries, as many Ukrainians learn from time to time as they try to enter Germany through Poland. When Poland signs up to the Schengen agreement (which may happen in 2007) the visas will become more expensive. Ukrainians and Byelorussians are all afraid of this moment. This economic watershed would threaten some people’s very existence.

Even more confusing than the situation in front of the consulates is that at the border crossings. Here, the people line up, come rain or shine, for many hours at a time; the traffic never flows freely. Two more border posts are due to be opened soon in the Carpathian region of the Ukrainian border. Perhaps then, at last, the jam will recede. On the Polish side, in Medyka, travellers also have to endure long waits with their baggage, even though the processing has become more routine. Above all, Ukrainians buy carpets, furniture and foodstuffs in Poland; complete bathroom suites, tiles and other building materials all cross the border, because in Poland there is a better and cheaper selection. That’s European, say the Ukrainians. The travellers use dollars and Euros, the balance is paid out in Zlotys. There are exchange bureaus in every supermarket and most of the larger sops on the Polish side, all geared up to serve the customers from the east. Many businesses and manufacturers advertise in Ukrainian; every few kilometres along the road to the border vibrant signs and advertising hoardings have been set up. The Poles like the Ukrainians as customers, they buy the newest, most expensive luxury cars, and they pay in cash.

Smuggling is also on the rise in Medyka.

The smugglers, known as “ants”, use the pedestrian crossing point which is open day and night. The reason for this is the trade in duty free cigarettes and alcohol. On the Ukrainian side, immediately behind the border post, a network of kiosks has grown up in a short space of time, to make the smugglers’ work easier. Now they no longer need to drive to Mostys'ka, the first town on the Ukrainian side. They smugglers are normally people who live in the border region. In fact they are allowed to carry one packet of cigarettes and half a litre of vodka when they leave the Ukraine. Some take more, hoping the customs officers do not find the goods. Sometimes they are lucky. But most people just take what they are allowed; they are afraid of the penalties. The worst would be the stamp in the passport forbidding re-entry. The smugglers usually travel daily, taking one packet at a time. When they have collected a reasonable amount, they sell it all to the wholesalers who are responsible for the wider distribution on a larger scale. The profit margin is a hundred percent. No one smokes taxed cigarettes in Przemyśl. The officers of the Medyka customs post confiscate on average between 60,000 and 80,000 packets each week.

The earnings for smuggling alcohol are lower, but still worthwhile. These days, nobody takes the simple stuff any more - pure vodka. The trade is in brand names, mostly cognacs and liqueurs. Confectionary, too, can be interesting. A kilo costing ten Zlotys is half the price of similar Polish products. Ketchup and tomato puree also sell well but the biggest ht is probably petrol, which is twice as expensive in Poland than in the Ukraine. One is allowed to bring a full tank and an extra ten litres. Both Poles and Ukrainians carry petrol, either to trade or for their own use. They often drive various models of Passat, for they have the largest tanks. There are places, along the roadside and in the lay-bys, where tanks are emptied and filled. All attempts to combat this trade have so far met with no success. As long as the profits to be made with the taxable goods are so high, and the differences in economic situations remain so extreme, the smuggling will continue. In and around Przemyśl, every second or third family lives from the trade. The occasional tourists from the West who pass through here watch these activities with curiosity as they are unique in the EU - even if, when travelling east, there a regulations at every border.

A Walking Tour of a Different Kind

The illegal immigrants come across the eastern border in the area around Przemyśl und Lubaczów, through the eastern Beskid mountains. They are usually Vietnamese coming in organised groups whose guides they paid before they left home. They want to reach the West and they are relying on a successful crossing of the Polish-German border. As a rule, they are usually picked up just a few kilometres after the crossing; the Polish watch are closely spaced, with one every ten kilometres or so. Very often, the guides turn out to be conmen who claim too soon that they have reached the German side. The immigrants remain without money or assistance, left by themselves in the dense forests, with no idea where they are. Usually the groups also include women and children.

Women from Romania and Moldavia are smuggled across the border from the Ukraine to be sold later in the West. The border guards are powerless: the officers explain that it is difficult even to describe what is happening as human trafficking, let alone expose it as such, as the women are usually travelling legally and willingly. It is only after they have arrived at their supposed destination that their drama begins. Human trafficking is easy: compared to the trade in drugs, for instance, the profits are much greater and it is significantly safer for the perpetrators because it is harder to detect.

Going to Lviv for a Coffee?

In 2005, the Ukraine suspended its visa requirement for EU citizens, yet only a few decided to go and admire the landmarks of Lviv. For the inhabitants of the West, Poland ends at Krakow. They prefer not to visit Przemyśl as the road towards the EU’s eastern border has a black reputation. The trip from Krakow takes seven hours. A braver group of Japanese tourists has tried it: although they reached Przemyśl alive, they explained that they would not like to repeat the experience because they value their lives too highly. Likewise, people from Przemyśl do not travel to Lviv for their coffee on Sundays. The queues at the border deter them - unless there is a premiere performance at the Lviv Operahouse. At the beginning of September, during the Galicia Festival, which has been organised for several years by the Erbe Foundation, the Lviv Opera company performed the Barber of Seville in the Krashic´yn Castle, which is not far from Przemyśl. The performance was sold out. Several hundred music lovers from Przemyśl also drove to Lviv for the Polish-Ukrainian performance “In the Land of Operetta.” This festival has already lent a new character to Polish-Ukrainian relations, but its organiser, Krystyna Schmeruk, says that people here are only just beginning to open up to other cultures and religions.

Przemyśl and Lviv have been separated by a lot of suffering caused by the War. The communities are now trying to bridge this chasm; indeed, a meeting of the two towns’ councils has been held following which, there was a shared planning meeting as well as a fair for tourists. Ukrainian spa towns are enjoying great popularity. There are economic reasons for this: it is much cheaper for Poles to purchase health than it is at home. In the surroundings of Przemyśl, a community bicycle path has been laid out which follows a route past the Austrian fortifications from the First World War.

European Aspirations

All those who believe in the European aspirations of the Ukraine are trying now to effect changes in their everyday relations. Since 2003, Ukrainian journalists have been meeting in Przemyśl. The locally based Foundation for Democracy provides training programmes which aim to communicate the values of the European Union. Every year in October, a “media-forest” is planted by the opinion leaders with Polish journalists. The trees grow. As Ukrainians are still a little afraid of the EU, to see how it functions the representatives of the media can visit Brussels. Marek Cynkar, a correspondent working for Radio Rzeszów in Przemyśl is the foundation’s initiator and he is good at procuring support. The initial funding came from the USA and now the main are from local business people.

It will be interesting to follow the progress of the National University for Eastern Europe. This was established in July 2006 in place of the Przemyśl Polytechnic. The university is supposed to represent a return to the traditions of a town whose development was originally based on the activities of many different cultures. It draws directly on the experiences and the work of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt-on-Oder. Its main impulses are to maintain the traditional cultural links with the closest neighbour and to create of a bridge between a Poland which is part of the EU and the Ukraine. According to the current constitution, the supra-regional university intends to attract EU funding from the envisaged programmes for the development of the “Eastern Wall.” The college has opened with five faculties, including Ukrainian Philology, History, Sociology and Political Science. Several dozen Ukrainian students are already enrolled here. This new generation of academics is descended from old Polish families, as only they are entitled to receive stipends. Unfortunately, the Polish Foreign Ministry has still not organised the passing of a new law allowing foreigners to receive stipends. This is an as yet modest university with a clearly humanist profile; it is open to the East and ha good chances for development.

More or less all the Polish towns, large and small, along the eastern border have close contacts with partners in the Ukraine. Zamość organises a festival of contemporary music with Luzk. Together with Zhukiv, as a part of the European INTERREG/TACIS programme, the “Royal Way” project was established, a cooperation between the historical towns and cities in the field of bilateral tourism. For fifteen years cultural connections and commercial ties with Zhukiv have been very active. With the assistance of the European Union, the project “Zamość - Zhukiv -Lviv” was staged here. This involved creative and artistic collaboration between these historical cities in the fields of culture, history and architecture. It was, in fact, this opportunity of profiting from the INTERREG/TACIS programme which finally motivated the Polish towns, after initial delays, to participate in the cooperation. In contrast to the Polish towns, the potential partners on the Ukrainian side wait impatiently; they know that they can only benefit.

Thanks to funding from the EU’s PHARE programme, the nearly 70,000 inhabitants of the Polish district capital Chełm could celebrate the tenth anniversary of their partnership with Kowel in the Ukraine. For the exhibition entitled “Eastern Economic Initiatives”, scores of commercial contracts were signed by local manufacturers. This was intended as an initial spark, because this region on Poland’s eastern periphery endures the highest unemployment rate in the whole of the European Union. In Chełm it stands at twenty percent. Above all, this is about commercial interaction as that is what will determine the success of the cooperation in other areas. Chełm is the applicant for the EU funds; as a rule, Kowel is the partner. Grzegorz Orzeł, of the municipal administration in Chełm, believes that as long as Brussels is ready to provide means to help reduce cultural and economic differences, towns like his should take advantage of it. Orzeł himself has benefited in a very personal way. In June, he married Victoria, a PHD student at the Faculty of International Relations of the University of Luzk. The ceremony took place in the Cathedral of Luzk and the party afterwards in the castle. Before this, however, the bridegroom had to vanquish four grim Knights in the courtyard of the castle who had kidnapped his wife. This is the local custom; it’s obligatory whether you are on the Polish or the Ukrainian side of the border. Many happy returns!

Under martial law, Jagienka Wilczak lost her first position as a journalist with Polish Radio. She returned to her profession in 1984, after winning a reportage competition. Today she works with the weekly news magazine “Polityka.” In recent years, her writing has concentrated mainly on Ukrainian and Byelorussian politics and on Balkan affairs.
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