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Poland's big year

The expansion of the European Union in May will add 10 new members — among them Poland, which now finds itself on the front line of the struggle to the prevent the EU from being swamped by economic migrants.
Ukrainian women leave a checkpoint after they were refused entry into Poland, in the Ukrainian border town of Mostyska.Gleb Garanich / Reuters file

As divided cities go, the plight of this one -- once a stout Prussian town bisected by the river Neisse -- has attracted little attention. Split in two after the World War II when the Allied powers designated the Neisse and the Oder rivers as the new border between Poland and Germany, locals found themselves cut off from each other for decades. The vanquished Germans streamed across the river; Poles on their eastern bank moved into abandoned German homes. Such are the spoils of war.

I first visited these estranged twins 12 years ago, just after German reunification had transformed the other side of the river from a piece of communist East Germany into a veritable land of milk and honey. Indeed, more than a decade of German investment has given today’s Guben a veneer of prosperity. Automatic teller machines, big gleaming German supermarkets and the usual phalanx of Teutonic automotive marvels suggest things are changing.

The more things change ...
Yet, as dramatic changes broke down the barriers that split Berlin and then Belfast in recent years, the other Gubin, the Polish one, has languished. Fifteen 15 years after the Berlin Wall crashed down, Gubin and Guben remain estranged. This has little to do with the old resentments of the 1940s, either. The fact is, German Guben is trapped on the frontier of the world’s most powerful economic blocs, while Polish Gubin remains a transit point for the EU, a marshaling yard for desperate Ukrainians, Russians, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Uzbeks and others yearning to get into the world’s most generous welfare state.

The result has hurt them both. In each city, unemployment is higher than the national average, and so is crime. Immigrant smuggling thrives. So, too, does prostitution and narcotics, as well as the notorious trade in young girls headed for the “markets” of Europe’s great cities.

“We’re in a time warp here,” says Wlodzimierz Kowalski,a merchant in the market on the Polish side. “We can’t live a normal life because the border is an obstacle to so many people who want to get into the EU. But when we Poles get in, then maybe here it becomes normal, too.”

Expanding horizons
For residents on both sides of the river, the coming enlargement of the European Union is viewed as a potential salvation. On May 1, Poland and nine other nations – primarily from central and eastern Europe – will be added to the European club, pushing the EU’s eastern border from the Neisse back nearly 400 miles to the Polish frontier with impoverished Belarus and Ukraine. True, there will be a two year transition period before Poland’s border with the rest of the EU disappears altogether, at least from a customs standpoint. But for Gubners, and Gubniks on the Polish side, anything that reduces the flow of destitute asylum seekers and their seamy black market escorts is a welcomed change.

For Poland, which joined NATO in 1998, the changes are not merely psychological. A huge shift in the emphasis of Poland’s border patrol and its customs bureaucracy is under way.

The EU estimates that at least 500,000 illegal immigrants make their way into the EU already each year. “There is a real concern that this number could double or worse once the EU’s border pushes east,” says an immigration official in Brussels. “We’re doing what we can to bring Poland and Lithuania, especially, up to standards and to make them understand this is a very important test of their ability to live up to the requirements of membership.”

As a result, beginning last October, Poland began requiring expensive visas for anyone wishing to enter from Belarus or Ukraine. This was not widely popular, since just as Poland sits on thousands of square miles that used to be German, Ukraine and Belarus have huge areas once governed by Poland. Some 418,000 ethnic Poles remain in Belarus; another 250,000 or so remain in Ukraine in the region Poles call eastern Galacia.

(Russian citizens who live in the surrounded enclave of Kaliningrad won’t have to pay -– an indication of the continuing importance that Poles place on remaining friendly with Moscow).

The new gatekeeper
From the start, one of the major objections to EU expansion was the concern of some in Western Europe’s more prosperous states that Poland would become a Trojan horse for EU asylum seekers, just as former East Germany had been at the start of the 1990s. Indeed, when I first visited Gubin in 1992, I was taken across the Neisse (barely 30 yards wide at some places) by a Romanian smuggler who told me he advises all his “clients” to just report themselves to the local police, who would happily take their asylum applications and house them while it was processed.

Thing have changed a bit in Germany -- the country will now send illegals back across the border to Poland. But with tension between immigrants and native born residents by now a permanent election issue is Germany, France, Spain, Italy and other EU states, there were strict demands made on Poland before its membership was approved.

"Poland is a slightly larger country than other candidates as far as the territory is concerned, a big country with a slightly longer, or much longer, external non-EU border than the other candidate countries -- and a country which therefore probably needs a bit more trust and confidence from the current member states," said Jan Truszczynski, the Polish diplomat leading his country’s talks with the EU, after a recent round of talks on border issues.

Funds and training
EU funds have helped, pouring in to help reconstruct border crossings, train border personnel and expand the border patrol.

In Kuznica Bialostocka, for instance, a new high security crossing for trucks and cars has been built for $10 million. All said, Poland is due to receive some $250 million in such funds between now and 2006, when the Polish German border becomes as invisible as the borders that now separate longtime EU members like France and Spain or Belgium and The Netherlands.

The Poles already are the subject of internal European anger because of their support for the United States in Iraq and for their stubborn refusal to renegotiate their voting rights in the debate over a new European Union constitution. Should their eastern border turn out to be a sieve through which millions pour, the damage will be not only to Poland’s economy, but to its pride and its quest for full, borderless membership in Europe.

“Failure is not an option for us,” a Polish soldier said as he patrolled the quiet, grassy eastern bank of the Neisse recently. “Right now, the job is keeping people from entering Germany. When it is about keeping people out of Poland, the stakes are higher for us.”