Poland Keeps Russia Border Shut to Traffic Amid Business Chagrin

  • Controls were tightened for Papal visit, NATO summit in Poland
  • Poland says not clear when it will be ‘safe’ to resume traffic

Poland is citing security concerns for failing to reinstate visa-free travel for residents of Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, surprising the authorities in Moscow and dealing a blow to Polish businesses along the border.

The government in Warsaw suspended rules allowing easier access for people who live near the European Union’s external boundary in Kaliningrad and Ukraine for safety reasons before last month’s NATO summit and visit of Pope Francis. The restrictions were lifted for Ukraine this week but not along Poland’s 232km (144 mile) border with Russia.

“The reasons for suspending local border traffic with Kaliningrad have not dissipated,” Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslaw Zielinski said in Szczytno, northern Poland, on Wednesday. “The decision is based on concern over Poland’s security in general. When we’re sure it’s safe, we’ll return to the issue.” The ministry’s press office declined further comment when reached by phone on Thursday.

Poland’s government, which has soured relations with western allies in its nine months in power amid a probe by the EU’s executive over its democratic track record, has so far avoided straining already cool ties with Russia. Warsaw is one of the EU’s loudest critics of President Vladimir Putin’s policies toward Ukraine amid concern the Kremlin is seeking to rebuild its Soviet-era dominance over eastern Europe.

Cross-Border Ties

There are “no reasons” for Poland failing to reinstate local border traffic and Warsaw citing security concerns is “surprising” given that both events that led to the higher scrutiny were far from the frontier and have finished, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in an e-mail reply to questions on Thursday. It said that 4.34 million people crossed the Kaliningrad-Poland border in 2015, including 1.3 million Russian citizens.

Data from the central statistical office in Warsaw showed that visitors spent 567 million zloty ($147 million) on goods and services last year, or about $113 per person, feeding a chain of businesses across northern Poland.

“People here have grown close with the Russians,” said Monika Rejt, deputy mayor of Bartoszyce, a Polish town of about 22,000 near the border where the unemployment rate is 29 percent, or more than three times the national average. “We live by trading with them, sell them food and medicine and even fix their cars. We’re far from global politics and like it that way.”

Rejt said commerce with Kaliningrad residents on day trips stopped when the local border traffic rules were suspended on July 4, leaving the town’s two new shopping centers deserted.

“Every step you take you see business activity dying out, with streets and parking lots empty,” Irena Kupis, co-owner of a car repair shop in Bartoszyce, said by phone. “The Russians used to spend their money here and the Poles made a good living. Now the Russians are gone and Poles are left without a penny.”

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