Poland - cross border traffic drops due to visa regime

RFE/RL, 7 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 37


On 1 October, in preparation for its accession to the European Union, Poland introduced visas for citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. The immediate result was a drop of some 70 percent-90 percent in incoming traffic at Poland's eastern border-crossing points. At one crossing point with Ukraine, which usually had about 8,000 people entering Poland daily, the number on 1 October was less than 800. Railway stations close to the frontier reported a similar drop in numbers: for one train from Belarus to Poland, only seven tickets were sold instead of the usual 500 plus.

However, speaking on Polish Radio, the head of Poland's Border Guards, Major General Jozef Klimowicz, observed that it is too soon to judge the long-term effect: some people may simply not yet have got the visas they require. It will take weeks or even months, he suggested, before the new pattern of traffic flow is established. He stressed, however, that precautions had been taken against illegal crossings: the frontier has been "reinforced' and the Border Guards are "ready."

Certainly, not all the Belarusian citizens wanting visas had yet gotten them. In the run-up to the deadline, Polish consulates in Belarus had been issuing between 300 and 400 visas a day. This, however, proved insufficient, and on 2 October (the second day of the new system) the consulates in Minsk, Brest, and Hrodna still had long queues outside.

Official Polish estimates suggest that some 280,000 Belarusian citizens annually will require Polish visas. However, the vast majority of the visas issued by consulates close to the frontier (Brest and Hrodna) have been multiple entry. This suggests that the need for visas will only prove a temporary "blip" in the cross-border "shuttle" trade that, over the last decade, has provided an important second income to many Belarusian and Ukrainian families close to the frontier. (In the meantime, market traders in eastern Poland are complaining of the lack of "shuttle" customers, who having sold off their own goods will "buy anything on offer" to take home with them.)

The Polish side had, in fact, tried to make the introduction of visas as painless as possible. The date - originally scheduled for 1 July - was postponed until after the tourist season. Residents of Kaliningrad will have free visas. For Belarus (which turned down an offer for free visas provided it would reciprocate with a no-visa policy for Poles), there will be free visas for various categories of travelers. including children, students, pensioners, the disabled, and persons visiting family graves.

Nevertheless, for the citizens of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, the visas are a "paper curtain" cutting them off from "Europe" and the world. This feeling is strongest in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave which has already, back in July, had to cope with Lithuania's introduction of transit visas for travel between the exclave and Russia proper.

Now, the Polish Consulate General in Kaliningrad is prepared to deal with a demand of upwards of 10,000 visa applications a month, with applications being processed in two to three working days. However, although the visa application forms are issued free at the consulate, and have even been appended to local newspapers as a special supplement, petty racketeers have been quick to seize the opportunities offered by the new rules...." [extract]
(This report was written by Vera Rich, a London-based freelance researcher)

Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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