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Poland: Tighter Border Controls Comply With EU Demands, But ...

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 28 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Polish nationwide television news program yesterday featured a lengthy report on complaints by local small traders against a recent government decision to tighten control on Poland's eastern border.

Last month (December 27), Poland enacted a law on foreigners obliging visitors from countries, which do not have specific agreements with Poland on visa-free travel, to have documents and sufficient funds, proving they have proper arrangements for a stay. The law immediately affected travelers from Russia and Belarus, the two neighboring countries without current visa-free agreements with Poland.

Also yesterday, several Polish newspapers reported that visiting European Union (EU) Commissioner responsible for customs, taxation and removing trade barriers, Mario Monti, told Polish government officials that Poland must impose strict customs-and-border controls as a condition of joining the EU. Monti was reported to have given the Poles a "road map" of adjustments to be made before entry negotiations start March 15. These adjustments were said to have included beefing up border controls. "The EU has to be confident in Poland's ability to secure effective control of what will become the external border of the (European) Union," Monti was reported to say.

In enacting the law on foreigners, Polish officials openly admitted that it had largely been prompted by the desire to conform with EU wishes. But they said that the bill was also intended to curtail widespread smuggling of cheap alcohol, at vast cost to Polish revenues, and to restrict illegal migration.

The move was met with immediate protests from many sides. Russia and Belarus have made formal protests against what they considered as discriminatory Polish practices. Both countries claimed that Poland failed to notify them in time about the forthcoming changes and violated existing travel agreements.

Ordinary Russian and Belarusian would-be travelers have staged repeated protests at various crossing points.

Polish inhabitants of border regions, as well as numerous small traders elsewhere complained that the new regulations imposed on them considerable financial losses.

Cross-border, informal, small-scale trade has facilitated, during recent years, the establishment of large, privately run bazaars. In time, these bazaars have acquired considerable economic importance. Suffice it to say that the bazaar in Warsaw alone last year accounted for about $400-million worth of exports. This made it Poland's fifth-largest exporter.

There are also major bazaars in other Polish cities, with an estimated Polish work force of more than 130,000 people.

Poland was host in 1996 to some 87-million visitors, mostly small traders coming for daily visits. They included about four-million Belarusian visitors and several hundred thousand Russians.

The Polish bazaar traders complained during last night's television program that the estimated turnover at the open-air markets had fallen by about 50 percent this month. And they demanded that the law be changed to facilitate economic operations.

But the government, clearly motivated by the long-standing interest in joining the EU, appears unmoved. Moreover, the officials argue that the impact of the new tight regulations on the economy could be merely temporary. The bazaar trading is increasingly dominated by large-scale, wholesale trade, they say, and foreign wholesalers would have no problem in securing proper documents and funds to continue their operations.

Ryszard Rybakiewicz, head of the firm operating the Warsaw bazaar, admitted that "the problem is for those who bring something, sell it and take something else away. Ordinary, small people." But he said that this type of trade is in decline.

The tightening of borders appears inevitable. And the problem is not limited to Poland alone. The Czech Republic and Hungary are, alongside Poland and Estonia, in the forefront of moves to integrate with the EU. And the EU requires that their borders are strictly controlled, and customs uniformly imposed. The EU considers those moves as requirements for membership. This fact alone appears to determine the volume and manner of cross-border travel in large parts of Central Europe. All other factors, social or economic, seem to have only a secondary importance.