Not So Quiet on the Eastern Front: Strikes, Protests and Gridlock at the Poland-Ukraine Border

Two people have died and thousands of trucks have been stuck at the border between Poland and Ukraine this week after customs officials went on wildcat strikes. They’re complaining about bad pay, overwork and a lack of preparation for dealing with the new Schengen zone borders.

Thousands of vehicles are stuck at the border, customs officials are striking, locals are protesting and two people have died — it’s not exactly all quiet on the Europe Union’s eastern front this week.

As EU interior and justice ministers gather in Slovenia for a two-day conference on border security, a crisis is emerging at the border between Poland and Ukraine.

The Schengen zone of passport-free travel was expanded on Dec. 21 to include Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta. As part of their inclusion in the Schengen area, these countries, which have been EU members since 2004, were to tighten up border security at the edges of what critics of EU border policy refer to as “Fortress Europe.”

But this has caused tensions at places where there has traditionally been massive traffic and where movement was relatively free before Dec. 21. One such hotspot is the Ukraine-Poland border, where people now have to queue for hours at the consulate for visas. That chaos has now been exacerbated by a Polish customs officers’ strike which has left thousands of vehicles, many of them commercial trucks, stuck at the border.

According to the Polish truck drivers’ union ZMPD, there are now 3,000 Polish trucks in gridlock waiting to cross over to Ukraine; many have been there for days. A ZMPD spokeswoman told SPIEGEL ONLINE she expected that number to increase to 4,000 by the weekend. “We hope it will be solved soon, but we don’t know when or how,” she said.

Meanwhile, around 400 vehicles and 1,500 rail carriages are stuck on the Ukrainian side of the border. The Polish customs officers’s wildcat strikes are also affecting the border crossings into Belarus.

There have been two fatalities so far. A 50-year-old Polish lorry driver collapsed and died on Wednesday after waiting at the border since Monday. And, according to the Ukrainian ZIK news agency, a driver waiting on the Ukrainian side died on Thursday after his truck caught fire.

The Ukrainian authorities have sent an ambulance and fire engine to the Polish border and the military was to set up a field kitchen, while Polish authorities were sending food rations to the waiting truckers, ZIK reports.

The root of the problem is the ongoing dispute by Poland’s Trade Union of Customs Officers. The union told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the row had been going on since Oct. 11, 2007, and was mainly due to issues of overwork, a lack of decent pay and chronic understaffing. A custom official’s starting monthly pay is €325; after three years, it can go up to a maximum of €425 – €500.

The customs officials have also complained that they were inadequately prepared for dealing with the massive flow of traffic between Poland and its eastern neighbors after Dec. 21. The liberal Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza has been predicting trouble for months and says Poland had plenty of time to reorganize its border controls.

The situation has so infuriated the Polish truckers that their ZMPD union is considering calling its own strike. It had been planning on blocking both the border crossings and the streets of the capital Warsaw this weekend. However, on Friday afternoon the union announced that it was calling off the strike due to the current national mourning in Poland after the death of 20 military personnel in an air crash on Wednesday evening.

However, the action may still go ahead: On Friday afternoon, Polish news channel TVN24 reported that ZMPD had announced that its members would impose a blockade of all roads heading east as well as roads in Warsaw as of 12 noon on Monday, if the situation had not improved by then.

There have also been protests on the Ukrainian side of the border. People living near the frontier have been demanding that the visa regime be lifted for those living within 50 kilometers of the border. Last week, many of them staged protests at the Polish consulate at Lviv, where around 1,300 people queue up to apply for visas every day.

The border with Ukraine was always one of the major points of concern in the EU when the Schengen area was expanded eastwards. Back in December, Hugo Brady a research fellow at the Center for European Reform told SPIEGEL ONLINE that “it is a weak point on the border, because it attracts people from all over, including people from Iraq and Russia.”

But the tough border measures, which include a new visa fee of €35, has not only clogged up cross-border traffic, but affected economic life on both sides of the border. Many Ukrainians living in the border villages make their living buying and selling goods on either side of the border, but the visa cost is prohibitive. The Polish tourist industry has been complaining about the disappearance of Ukrainian tourists, while the country’s construction industry is feeling the loss of cheaper Ukrainian labor.

Frontex, the EU organization which works with member states to coordinate border security, rejects suggestions that the mess at the Polish border is down to bad planning at an EU level.

“The enlargement of Schengen changed nothing at the external border checks, apart from the fact that the new Schengen states now use Schengen information systems,” Frontex spokesman Michal Parzyszek told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Friday. “It is purely the obligation of the member states to perform border checks in the proper way.”

With reporting by Marta Glowacka in Warsaw

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