The New Iron Curtain: In Today's 'borderless' Europe, an Economic Wall Separates the Haves from the Have-Nots

A few stray dogs and a bedraggled band of women with gold-capped teeth compete for the thin shaft of afternoon sunlight that warms a corner of the decrepit railway station waiting room.

The women, from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, are smugglers. There is no secret about that. They are busy putting on layer after layer of new clothing, suiting up for their daily battle with the border police.

These days there is a lot of talk about a borderless Europe, but in this corner of the continent, on the eastern crust of Poland along the banks of the River Bug, there is no mistaking the omnipresence of the border. In many ways, this border has become Europe's new Iron Curtain. The divide is no longer ideological; the wall is between rich and poor, between Europe's haves and have-nots.

The modern concept of national borders as clear, demarcated lines is a European invention that has been exported around the globe, providing a ready source of conflict and bloodshed. Even in today's relatively peaceful and settled Europe, borders remain flash points. Think of Kosovo, where Europe's newest hostile border has been drawn.

Europe's borders have changed radically in the past generation. More than 8,000 miles of new national borders have been created on the continent since 1989, mostly in Europe's eastern half. But the whole notion of borders also has undergone a profound physical and psychological transformation.

The primary impetus for this transformation was the collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. But almost as important has been the ascendance of the European Union and its commitment to the free movement of people across the borders of its 27 member states.

According to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the price of creating this remarkable zone of free movement has been the creation of a hard external border that seals off the EU from its poorer neighbors. "This wasn't the intent of Schengen, but it has been one of the major side effects," he said.

Schengen refers to a series of agreements implemented in 1995 that did away with internal border controls across much of Western Europe. The so-called Schengen Zone was expanded in December to include Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Malta.

Along the EU's eastern frontier, some people have started to refer to the external border as the Schengen Wall --or, less felicitously, the New Iron Curtain.

EU officials cringe at the Iron Curtain reference. They like to talk about "smart" borders secured by thermal cameras, satellite monitors, biometric data banks and other high-tech whistles and bells.

A Cold War feel

But here in Terespol, the border between Poland and Belarus still has a Cold War chill to it. The border on the Polish side may be smart, but on the Belarus side it consists of old-fashioned electrified fences, watchtowers and unsmiling guards.

This was and still is Josef Stalin's border. At the start of World War II, the Soviet dictator grabbed a large chunk of eastern Poland, annexed it to Belarus and never gave it back. After the war, 2.35 million Poles living in this territory were resettled in northern and western Poland; about a million Poles remained.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the communities along this border began to reknit. Cross-border trade started to flourish, nourishing the economy on both sides. Poland, with its eager embrace of Western Europe, was always going to be the richer of the two, but it was Belarus' extreme bad luck to fall into the political grasp of Alexander Lukashenko, a thuggish boss of the Soviet old school.

Under Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator, the economy is stuck in reverse.

"It's not hard to find a job at home, but it will only pay $100 a month. Even in Belarus, that's not enough to live on," said Ludmilla, one of the women in the Terespol railway station.

So she and the other women eke out a living as traders, filling suitcases and plastic trash bags with cheap clothing and other merchandise bought in Polish wholesale markets and smuggling it back into Belarus for resale.

But their modest enterprise has been thwarted by Viktor Lukashenko, the president's son and heir apparent who also happens to be governor of the Breskaja district on Poland's border. The younger Lukashenko decreed that only three items of new clothing could be imported per trip.

'For us, it's the end'

"Our president, whom we cannot get rid of, and his son, who will replace him for another 60 years, want everyone in Belarus to be poor," complained Ludmilla, who declined to give her last name out of fear of government harassment.

To get around the restriction, the women in the railway station squeeze into as many layers of clothing as they can--perhaps tucking a small item or two between the layers--before getting on the train and taking their chances. Some of the women make two or three round trips each day.

Soon they will be facing a much more daunting obstacle.

When Poland joined the Schengen Zone in December, it agreed to impose much stricter border controls on its Belarusian neighbors. For the time being, Ludmilla and the others are entering Poland on multiple-entry visas obtained before December. When those visas expire, they will have to apply for Schengen visas.

These are much more expensive--about $100 for a single entry--and require extensive supporting documentation, including tax and bank records, proof of employment and letters of invitation from business partners in Poland.

"For us, it's the end," Ludmilla said.

Even for those who are relatively well-off, the Schengen rules pose a formidable barrier. Ania, a 24-year-old accountant, is an ethnic Pole from Belarus who left home to attend college in Poland. After graduating, she found a job as an accountant in Siedlce, a small city in eastern Poland about 60 miles from the border.

"My family and I, we felt ourselves to be Polish and members of the Polish nation even though we lived in Belarus. We always kept Polish traditions in our home," said Ania, who also asked that her last name be withheld to avoid problems in Belarus.

"It's easier to find a job [in Poland], easier to find an apartment," she said. "We always looked to Poland as a place where you could live a better life. And if a helping hand ever came to Belarus, it was usually coming from Poland.

"But now we feel cut off from Poland and from the rest of Europe."

Geopolitical divide

Ania has a 10-year student visa that should enable her to go back and forth without trouble, but it will be difficult for her family to visit her in Poland.

When she travels to Belarus, Ania generally takes the train, and when it stops at Terespol, she often helps the women at the station transport their goods across the border. Not anymore.

"They are checking everyone so carefully now, I'd be afraid," she said.

Europe's new external border is a personal inconvenience for Ania and an overwhelming economic hardship for Ludmilla, but it also raises concerns on a higher, geopolitical level.

The original Iron Curtain arbitrarily cut Europe in half. The new divide falls fairly neatly along civilizational lines that separate the mostly Roman Catholic and Protestant West from the Orthodox East.

That raises questions about the larger meaning of Europe and the European Union. Though the EU wants nations like Belarus and Ukraine to look west toward Brussels, its policies may instead be directing them east toward Moscow, capital of a resurgent and increasingly autocratic Russia.

"The whole concept behind the EU was the unification of Europe, a Europe whole and free, as they say," said Robin Shepherd, an analyst at Chatham House, a London think tank. "It's great if you are inside the EU, but the European countries with the deepest problems -- Belarus -- or the countries trying to fight their way out of these problems--Ukraine--now find a very high barrier is keeping them on the outside."

'Neighbors, not enemies'

Following the Polish border south through deep forests of birch and pine, Belarus gives way to Ukraine. The frontier on the Ukrainian side is marked by a double barrier of electrified fences.

But the power has been off for years, and in stretches the fence is in obvious disrepair. Border security was tightened a few months ago when Ukraine began using professional border guards. Before that, army conscripts patrolled.

On the Polish side, Col. Waldemar Skarbek and his men are in charge of securing a 150-mile stretch of Europe's eastern frontier. There's no fence, but Skarbek said the new technology provided by the EU is more than adequate.

Earlier this year, thermal cameras on the Polish side of the border detected a group of illegal immigrants attempting to cross from the Ukrainian side. Skarbek and his men watched with some amusement as the group industriously--but quite unnecessarily -- tunneled under the Ukrainian fence. As soon as they popped up on the Polish side, Skarbek's men arrested them.

It used to be that Ukrainians didn't need a visa to travel to Poland. Now they do, and Skarbek seemed less than enthused about his new mandate to enforce that requirement.

"These are our neighbors, not our enemies," he said.

Jadwiga Zenowicz, head of Polish customs for the same stretch of border, feels the same way.

"My mother, who is 80, was born in Luck, which used to be in Poland but is now in Ukraine," she said. "In this part of Europe, you have two nations that want to live on the same territory and want to get along with each other."

Being outside the EU and the Schengen Zone puts Ukraine in a very disadvantaged position, Zenowicz said. "I understand why it has to be, but that doesn't mean we are happy about it."

Price of EU admission

This understanding, according to Yale's Snyder, was the price of admission to the EU for Poland and the other former East Bloc countries that now form the eastern rampart of Fortress Europe.

Poland and the others had to "earn trust in the eyes of their EU counterparts," he said. "To convince the EU that they belong, they had ... to show that they understand that other states such as Belarus and Ukraine do not."

When Poland became a member of the Schengen Zone in December, the immediate impact was a colossal traffic jam. Trucks were backed up for more than a dozen miles in Poland and Ukraine. Delays of up to four days were reported.

One reason for the backup was confusion about the new rules. Another was a job action by Polish customs officials unhappy with their low wages. Ukrainians, angry about the new visa rules, also contributed to the mess by blocking traffic on their side.

"Do we feel cut off? Absolutely, and it's very painful and unnecessary," said Bohdan Huk, a Ukrainian writer and Polish citizen who lives in Przemysl, a mixed city on the Polish side of the border.

"Before 1989, nobody would believe the changes we have seen in the East," Huk said. "But now, with Poland's integration into the EU, we are beginning to understand that not all of what has happened is completely good. The West has closed itself. I think it's rather obvious that this will have a negative impact on the democratization process in the East."

Snyder agreed: "You want Ukrainian, Belarusian and also Russian elites to have some sense that they belong to Europe," he said. "But if you can't get into a country, you feel like a second-class citizen sitting in the back of the bus."

Chicago Tribune