Poland has been enjoying an economic miracle, with growth of 3.8% in 2010 and 4% in 2011. Yet the rural eastern provinces are lagging behind the rest of the country. “We are a long way from Warsaw,” said Andrzej Czapski, mayor of Biała Podlaska, capital of the province of Podlaskie. “There is no work here. The big companies we used to have went under during the transition years.” Just down the road is the Białowiez.a nature reserve, one of the last remaining parts of a primeval forest, home to several hundred wild bison. This is the European Union’s frontier, its “Far East”: northeast lies Belarus, southeast the foothills of the Carpathians and the Ukrainian plain. East of Warsaw, there are few big cities other than Białystok and Lublin, fewer railway lines, and the motorways give way to trunk roads crowded with lorries crawling towards Lithuania, Belarus or the Ukraine.
“Over the last 20 years, the disparities with the west of the country have grown,” said Wiktor Wojciechowski of the Warsaw School of Economics. “The eastern parts lack the infrastructure that would enable them to attract investors.” In 2000 wages in the province of Podkarpackie were already 12% lower than the national average; today the gap has widened to 17%. The GDP of the province of Lubelskie has fallen from 4.5% of national GDP in 1995 to 3.9%. In 2008 the average GDP of Podlaskie, Lubelskie and Podkarpackie was less than 30% of the average for all provinces.
“The main employer here is public services,” said Czapski. “We can’t keep our young people here: they want to move to Warsaw or emigrate to western Europe.” Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, nearly 2 million people, most of them graduates, have gone to seek their fortunes abroad. According to the Central Statistical Office, 550,000 Poles are working in the UK, 140,000 in Ireland, 90,000 in Italy, 80,000 in Spain, 50,000 in France and 70,000 outside the EU. The government, unable to stop the exodus, sees them as a “lost generation”. Tomek, 30-ish, is one of the few who have come back to Białystok: “I spent five years teaching English in China. I’m glad to be back at last, even though I can’t really see how I’m going to find a job here.”
It’s mostly due to the safety valve of emigration that unemployment is just 13% in Białystok, and only 15% even in Biała Podlaska, one of Poland’s poorest towns. “People from the countryside initially come to live in small towns but then move on to Warsaw, so the rural population is dwindling, but the population of the small towns isn’t growing,” said Czapski. In Podlaskie province, there are 59 people per square kilometre, half the national average. And emigration could accelerate: in May 2011 Germany opened up to workers from eight central and eastern European countries because it was short of labour. The German government expects 100,000 immigrants over the next few years, and many Poles will be tempted to join 400,000 fellow countrymen already living in Germany. Every town has its preferred migratory destination: young people from Mon’ki head for Glasgow, those from Sokółka go to London, those from Siemiatycze to Belgium.
Land of smallholdings
Eastern Poland is often referred to pejoratively as “Polska B” — as opposed to “Polska A”, the western part, which was German until 1918, while the east was occupied by Russia. According to political scientist François Bafoil, some believe these historical differences are to blame for the divide between “developed, industrial Poland and rural Poland, the Poland of agricultural smallholdings or even micro-holdings. A divide between the values represented by the trilogy of ‘God, Honour and Fatherland’ particularly associated with the eastern parts of the country, and the values of openness and dynamism traditionally associated with the west” (1). The results of the legislative elections of October 2011 appear to support this view: most of the west voted for Civic Platform, the neoliberal, pro-European party in power since 2007, while the east remained faithful to the Law and Justice party founded by the very nationalist president Lech Kaczyn’ski, killed in a plane crash at Smolensk in April 2010. “The locals are country folk; they are faithful and hardworking,” said Paweł Makowiecki, a young engineer who is trying to develop information and communications technologies in Białystok. “But they are not very open. Changing attitudes is hard work. So EU aid is an opportunity not to be missed.”
The money has been pouring in since the establishment of the EU’s Phare aid programme for central and eastern European countries, and the current Instrument for Structural Policies for Pre-Accession, but especially since Poland joined the EU. “Thanks to joining the EU, we’ve seen extraordinary changes over the past few years,” said sociologist Tadeusz Poplaski as we walked through Białystok. “We finally have the means to develop the potential of this region and make it one of the most dynamic in Poland.” With EU money, the town is beginning to shed its grey, run-down image. The renovated market place is used for concerts during the summer. “We have cafés and bookshops, places where students can meet and socialise. The town is coming back to life.” In many eastern towns, renovated buildings and building sites sport the EU flag. The Teatr Stary, Lublin’s oldest theatre, has been restored after being abandoned for two decades following a disastrous fire in 1986; it will soon offer a wide range of theatrical productions and films. “This project has great symbolic importance. It represents the rebirth of Lublin,” said Krysztof Łatka, in charge of development strategy at the town hall.
Between 2007 and 2013, €2.67bn, of which 85% is EU funding, is going into the development programme for eastern Poland. Podlaskie, Lubelskie, Podkarpackie, Warmin’sko-Mazurskie and S’wietokrzyskie share this considerable sum for investment in priority areas such as economic support, internet connectivity, transport and sustainable tourism. “This strategy is a sign that the government sees helping the macro-region to catch up as a priority,” said Boz.ena Lublin’ska-Kasprzak, president of the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development. “The most optimistic entrepreneurs are in the east, because our support allows them to take advantage of local assets that have remained untapped until now.” In the little town of Siedlce, Grzegorz Korcin’ski, 25, had just established a website design company, with the help of a €5,000 EU grant. “It’s allowed me to get started, to buy equipment and rent an office. Now it’s up to me to find clients,” he said enthusiastically.
The Polish government is trying to promote the advantages of this remote and rural region. The soil in Podlaskie is sandy and not particularly fertile, but the government points out that it’s ideal for pasture (the province produces nearly a third of Poland’s milk). The region is very little urbanised and covered in forest, but this is what attracted Swedish giant Ikea, which opened a furniture factory in the district of Orla in June 2011, an investment of €140m, partly financed by the EU. Podkarpackie is isolated, but that is why US manufacturer Sikorsky has chosen to assemble and test its Black Hawk military helicopters in Mielec, where it employs 2,000 people.
Eastern Poland is also hoping that its natural assets — forests, lakes, marshes and a great variety of extraordinary wildlife — will allow it to develop eco-tourism. “We have three national parks in Podlaskie, and 70% of the province is included in the Natura 2000 network,” said Jadwiga Bogucka-Skorochodzka, a provincial government official responsible for agricultural aid. “That limits the scope for productive investment, but makes it possible to develop sustainable tourism and keep our rural areas alive.” The Zagroda Kuwasy inn and conference centre, in the village of Woz’nawies’, does business all year round. It offers wooden chalets, horses, and a lake whose far shore is hidden in the mist, just a few hours’ drive from Warsaw. Jarek, a sales representative for a household appliances firm, attending a conference there with his colleagues, said: “It’s the ideal location for working during the day and relaxing at night.” A plaque at the entrance informs visitors that the facility was built with EU subsidies.
But it’s too early to tell if this renaissance is real. “The eastern provinces haven’t participated in the opening up of Poland over the past 20 years. They are beginning to wake up, but most of the foreign companies that wanted to invest in this country have already set up operations in Wrocław, Poznan’ or Warsaw. They are not going to move here now,” said Piotr Stec, director of the Polish Regional Development Agency. Wojciechowski believes the massive influx of structural funding is artificially inflating growth figures: “Most of the money is going into infrastructure or consumer goods rather than productive investment.” Zamos’c’, a town in Lubelskie province known as the Padua of the North, has just finished renovating its town centre, a gem of Renaissance and baroque architecture, with the help of structural funding. But outside the holiday season, the town is lifeless and its inhabitants have nothing to do. In 2011 unemployment was around 13% and the town was not attracting enough investment to ensure its future prosperity.
“As long as the EU provides funding, we will build all the infrastructure that is lacking,” said Czapski, “even if it means going into debt.” The municipality and other local authorities are required to match every euro the EU puts up, which in most cases means taking out loans. This is beginning to raise concerns in view of the European debt crisis and fears that EU aid will be reduced between 2014 and 2020. “Receiving less aid would be a blow,” Bogucka-Skorochodzka admitted, “but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. In these parts, we know how to survive.” Yet it is essential that the aid should continue if the regional economy is not to go on stagnating for years to come. The EU has given Poland massive financial support, but joining the Schengen area has cut the country off from its eastern neighbours.
The border with Belarus is not far from Białystok, on a road through a thick forest. Police checks are frequent. Since Poland joined the Schengen area in December 2007, the border has become a formidable barrier to Belarusians. Apart from going through an interminable application procedure they now have to pay €60 (one-quarter of the average monthly wage in Belarus) for a visa, when even Russians only have to pay €35. “These borders are an obstacle to our development,” said Tadeusz Truskolaski, mayor of Białystok. “This region could become Europe’s gateway to Belarus.” Białystok has four French-owned supermarkets (two branches of Auchan and two of Leroy Merlin), aimed at those Belarusians who still shop in Poland. “But that has little impact on the local economy. Only those who have visas and make a living from small-scale cross-border trade get any benefit from the border.”
At Bobrowniki, there was a six-kilometre queue of lorries waiting to get through customs. It can take 12 hours. In the car park at the customs office in Terespol, a few kilometres from the Belarusian town of Brest (formerly Brest-Litovsk), people were selling vodka and cigarettes from Belarus, nappies from Poland. The authorities turn a blind eye. “We have had a few problems with corruption,” said Marcin Czajka, of the Biała Podlaska customs press office. “About a hundred officials were brought to trial in 2008 and 2009. Changing attitudes takes time.” According to the Polish authorities, more than eight billion contraband cigarettes were smoked in Poland in 2010. In spite of ultra-modern detection equipment paid for by the EU, 50% were smuggled via the Lublin area. “We mainly find tobacco and counterfeit clothing hidden in vehicle walls and tyres,” said a customs officer, his eyes glued to the screen as the X-ray machine scanned a Belarusian lorry. In the first half of 2011, the customs posts on the Belarusian and Ukrainian borders reported 21,000 attempted smuggling incidents. Some contraband does make it over the Schengen wall, but people are finding it more difficult.
Tensions near the border
“Since Poland joined the Schengen area, we’ve seen fewer Ukrainians and Belarusians,” said Czapski. “But it’s vital that Europe should not become divided, as it was in 1945.” In 2008 Poland signed an agreement that allows Ukrainians living close to the border to move freely within a zone that extends 30km beyond it. A similar agreement has been ratified for Belarus, but its implementation has been postponed since the presidential election of December 2010, when the Belarusian government arrested more than 600 opposition leaders and supporters. “Relations between the EU and the Belarusian authorities deteriorated after the crackdown that followed the election,” said Wojciech Konon’czuk, of the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based thinktank. “President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been banned from entering Polish territory, is using the tension to fuel his propaganda.”
Lukashenko sees the sizable Polish minority in Belarus (200,000-400,000) as a threat. The Union of Poles in Belarus, which seeks to promote Polish culture, has been banned since 2005, and members are frequently arrested. “The government’s rhetoric is simple: only the Belarusian state, the heir of the Great Patriotic War [as the second world war was known in the Soviet Union], and President Lukashenko are capable of fighting the Poles and the ‘fascists’ who are trying to dismantle Belarus, as they did in 1920,” said Konon’czuk.
After its defeat in the Russo-Polish war of 1919-20, Soviet Russia was forced to give up the territory west of Minsk, including the cities of Vilnius, Grodno, Brest and Lviv. These returned to Soviet control in 1945, when Stalin imposed a border based on the “Curzon line”, named after the British foreign minister who proposed it at the end of the first world war. The eastern part of Poland still bears the marks of this division.
Like the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795), astride the trade routes linking the Baltic to the Black Sea, had incorporated a huge diversity of peoples and religions. More recent re-drawings of borders have divided communities. “Without ever leaving home, my great-grandfather found himself living in five different countries: Imperial Russia, Poland, the Soviet Union, Germany and Poland again,” said Jarosław Iwaniuk, a journalist for Radio Rajca, based in Białystok with 2.5 million listeners in Belarus. “We try to help families that have been separated keep in touch, but the region is losing its identity.” Poles, Russians, Belarusians — on Radio Rajca, all are free to speak their own language and are able to understand each other. “As far as we are concerned, there has never been a border,” said anthropologist Tomasz Sulima. “In the past, people around here didn’t define themselves by their language or their religion: they were simply loyal to the king of the Commonwealth.”
Sulima is fighting to save Podlachian, a dialect spoken in the countryside around Białystok, on both sides of the border. “We hold concerts and traditional festivals; we try to remind people of their roots.” Except for these few initiatives, contact with Belarus is limited. In Białystok, people look west. “We did have some contact with the city of Grodno, but since the presidential election in 2010 that’s all finished,” said Civic Platform member Tadeusz Truskolaski. “Today, we look towards Warsaw and the Baltic states.”
The university city of Lublin has decided to open up to its eastern neighbours as a way of ensuring its future development, within the framework of the “Eastern Partnership”, an initiative launched by Poland and Sweden in 2009. “We are expanding our exchanges with Lwów [Lviv] and other cities in western Ukraine,” said Michał Karapuda, who is responsible for the city’s cultural strategy. “We are at the centre of a vast central-European area, and we should take advantage of that. It’s no accident that the Polish-Lithuanian union agreement was signed here in 1569.” An unsuccessful candidate for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016 (2), Lublin is preparing to celebrate its 700th anniversary in 2017 with cross-border projects, such as the Connect by the Border programme, which seeks to strengthen musical and theatrical collaboration. Karapuda believes making Lublin a leading cultural centre will emphasise the city’s uniqueness and firmly establish it as a regional capital.
Grants from Brussels are slowly reviving these long-forgotten regions on the distant frontier of the EU. But they will only recover their identities, and their prosperity, if and when the borders that divide them become more flexible. In Biała Podlaska, Mayor Czapski dreams of redrawing the map of Europe: “We are right on the rail link from Lisbon to Vladivostok. One day, perhaps, we will be able to fulfil our proper role as a centre of welcome and exchange.” If the former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth are to regain this central position, they will first have to stop acting as a defensive limes (3) against a world dominated by Russia, which they see as essentially unstable and hostile, and resume their position at the heart of a zone of open relations and exchange, whatever the future borders of the EU may be.