A Cold West Wind

I'm ashamed of what people from my country have to do to survive," says Svetlana, an unemployed Ukrainian schoolteacher. Svetlana, 27, is downing vodka with her husband at a seedy, $2.50-a-night guesthouse next to the bus station in Przemysl, just over the border in Poland. Like many Ukrainians, Svetlana now ekes out a living in the border bazaars that sprang up across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. Every few weeks, Svetlana crosses into Poland carrying bagloads of goods to sell at a jumble of derelict stalls and tables in what used to be the football stadium in Przemysl. Svetlana refuses to give her last name, not from shame, but because the Poles are cracking down on traders like her.

From Poland north to Estonia and south to Romania, former Soviet states and satellite nations are tightening their eastern borders. All aspire to join the European Union, which offers more open trade with rich nations like France and Germany, but demands greater vigilance against contraband goods and illegal immigrants from the east. Even before it begins to admit new members, the EU will spend more than ¤50 million this year to toughen eastern-border security in the "applicant states," including money for four-wheel-drive vehicles, night-vision equipment, uniforms and German advisers. Once they join the EU, new members will be able to travel visa-free in Western Europe, but will have to demand visas from former Soviet allies to the east. The widened EU will push the unofficial border between Eastern and Western Europe about 400 miles east, across the width of Poland. And the cold-war echoes are lost on neither side. At a recent diplomatic summit, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski warned against erecting a "new curtain" across Europe.

The warning comes a bit late. No one knows the scope of the "bazaar economy," but economists figure that tightening border restrictions will cost 140,000 jobs on the Polish side, and probably more in Ukraine. Svetlana says she's been refused entry at the border several times now, even though she trades legally in women's cheap clothing, lace curtains and sneakers. She says she's been shoved and bruised by the masked, machine-gun-wielding Polish border brigades who now regularly raid local guesthouses, kicking in doors to search for illegal immigrants and Customs-dodgers carrying contraband cigarettes and liquor. "They used to leave us alone but now they humiliate us," Svetlana says.

The border trade boomed after communism collapsed in 1989. Poles rushed to Ukrainian factory towns like Lviv and Chernivtsi to buy cheap tools to fix their homes. Ukrainians went to Poland's markets to stock up on Western-style clothing and household goods. Families long divided by the border were reunited; some Ukrainians settled in Poland for good. Polish frontier towns like Przemysl turned to the border trade--running guesthouses, driving shuttle buses to the border, working for Customs. Today the hills above Przemysl are lined with new, whitewashed villas built with the modest gains of the bazaar economy.

On the Ukrainian side, where recovery from the post-Soviet collapse has been slow, the trade was a matter of survival. Unemployment runs as high as 30 percent and the average monthly wages of $30 are less than one tenth those in Poland. "I couldn't buy enough food for my family," says Roman Timofeyu, who quit his $28-a-month job as a nurse to sell Ukrainian-made toys in Przemysl. Many others slip over the border carrying contraband--cheap Ukrainian vodka or cigarettes--concealed under baggy peasant clothes. Known as ants, most of these small-time smugglers are women. About 3,000 still cross the pedestrian checkpoint at Przemysl each day, then drop their goods at a Polish dealer's booth just behind the border for a small, quick profit.

Not all the trade is in goods. In some villages, $3,000 in cash will get an Afghani, Sri Lankan or Chinese migrant across the border and heading on toward Western Europe. But it's getting tougher. At Poland's frontier with Russia and Belarus farther north, strict new visa requirements have already cut traffic in half. While Ukrainians still don't need visas, a new law requires them to carry at least $125 in cash--four months' wages--when they enter. At Korczova, north of Przemysl, there's a brand-new ¤30 million Customs terminal partly funded by the EU, complete with X-ray equipment and endoscopic cameras to peer through the walls of crates and trucks. A few years ago there were only 140 Customs agents in the Przemysl border district. There are 800 now.

Officers of the Polish border guard are now trained in Germany, and EU officials regularly visit Poland to check up on their progress. They've installed computer passport readers and special microscopes to authenticate visas. In the first six months of this year, they turned back 11,000 people at Przemysl, up from 14,000 in all of 1999. As a result of Poland's crackdown, Germany reports a marked decline in the number of illegal crossings at its own border with Poland almost 400 miles farther west. "We're not in the EU yet but we're fulfilling the role of barrier already," says Capt. Witold Lesko, a border-guard official who recently returned from a training course in Germany.

The bazaar economy is dying. Witold Zajonc, owner of three guesthouses in Przemysl, says the raids by border guards have been scaring off Ukrainian customers. His hostels are mostly empty now, with 40 percent fewer guests than two years ago. Tomasz, a 31-year-old unemployed Polish agricultural engineer, used to run three stalls at the Przemysl bazaar selling clothes to Ukrainians. Each week he shipped in as many as five truckloads from Warsaw, making enough money to build a three-story house for his family. Now he's shut down the stalls and lives off his savings. "There are no more clients," he says. "Everyone I know is giving up."

The Ukrainian traders are bracing for even tougher border controls. EU rules are clear: by the time Poland joins, Ukrainians will have to apply for hard-to-get visas. For Poland, the benefits of open borders with the West far outweigh the losses from reduced trade with the east. Already, Polish trade with the EU is $49 billion a year, compared with just $6 billion with former Soviet states--including a mere $1 billion with Ukraine. In any case, economists point out, the region's development ambitions should aim higher than makeshift markets supporting an army of shabby traders. The worry of some Poles is that tightening the border will push Ukraine into Russia's arms, and provoke an increasingly angry backlash in Moscow. When Estonia slapped new visa requirements on Russians last month, Moscow filed a formal diplomatic protest. The trick, then, will be for aspiring members of the Western club to put up a new curtain that feels more like velvet than iron.