Far From Quiet on the Eastern Front

Ahead of Poland's acceptance into the European Union, the bloc's member states are concerned that Poland's fledgling democracy will not be able to maintain the strict controls needed to keep smugglers from the East Ч Russia, Ukraine and Belarus Ч from crossing the border with contraband wares. Marcin Grajewski of Reuters reports from Medyka, a border town in Poland.

MEDYKA, Poland Ч Ukrainian railway worker Bohuslav has eight cartons of cigarettes down his trousers and several bottles of vodka strapped beneath his jacket on his monthly smuggling run to Poland.

Unemployed Roman has packed a secret coffer in his dilapidated Volga car with bottles of 95 percent alcohol, which is cheap in Ukraine and in strong demand from Poles.

They are among thousands of poverty-stricken Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians who try to outsmart Polish customs officers every day at the country's long eastern border, which is soon to become the European Union's frontier.

Their ingenious efforts sustain economies on both sides of the 1,260-kilometer border, the northern part of a line of defense against crime the EU wants future members to construct from the Baltic Sea to within reach of the Danube delta. Such smugglers will have to be stopped if EU countries are to accept they will not be swamped with contraband, arms and drugs once Poland joins the union.

With key decisions on how and when to enlarge the 15-nation bloc due to be made at Sweden's Gothenburg summit next week, the 12 mostly ex-communist candidate states from Eastern Europe know their border controls will come under increasing scrutiny. They face deep-rooted suspicion in countries like Germany and Austria, the EU's current frontline, that the new borders will become gaping holes in the union's flanks. Germany has even suggested placing its border guards in eastern Poland, an idea that has met a frosty reception. Brussels is now considering forming a pan-European frontier police, a notion Warsaw has said it can accept.

"It is like battling windmills. We stop two smugglers, but another two may get in. We cannot check everybody," says Dariusz Szworak, the chief customs officer at Medyka, one of the main border crossings between Poland and Ukraine.

Bohuslav, 43, smiles after customs officers on the train spare him and his luggage from a search. He will sell his contraband at a 200 percent profit in nearby Przemysl, earning $20 without which his family would not make ends meet.

"I do not like what I am doing, but I have to support my children. I make several such trips a month to supplement my $40 monthly wages," he says.

Shuttle Smugglers

Polish customs officers call people like Bohuslav "ants."

"Some ants cross the border several times a day, but there is little we can do to stop them," says customs officer Szworak.

Many ants at Medyka go to an open-air bazaar several hundred meters from the crossing, where middlemen buy their contraband and ship it on to Warsaw and other cities. Those keen for a better price go on to Przemysl to look for customers near the railway station.

"Even if the 30 million people who cross our eastern border annually bring in the allowed one liter of alcohol and one carton of cigarettes, the quantity is enormous," says Zbigniew Bujak, head of Poland's Central Customs Office.

Newspapers report that criminal groups smuggle in cigarettes and alcohol en masse in trucks, but there are no official estimates of the scale of the activity. Foreign tobacco firms, like Philip Morris, which have invested hundreds of million of dollars in Poland, complain that about 15 percent of the nearly 90 billion cigarettes smoked in the country each year are contraband. Government officials have said that up to one-third of alcohol consumed in Poland comes from smuggling or unlicensed domestic production.

Moving the EU's external frontier 650 kilometers to the east will also shift onto Poland the huge burden of combating the smuggling of cars stolen in the West to be sold in Russia.

Another tough job after EU enlargement will be cracking down on the trafficking of women for prostitution and stopping the flow of illegal immigrants from east Asia and poor ex-communist countries who seek better lives in Western Europe.

Border guards estimate tens of thousands of illegal immigrants cross Polish borders each year en route to Germany.

Fat With Contraband

Petty smugglers invent ingenious methods to outwit the customs officers.

"Some pour spirit into plastic bags and wrap them around their bodies. Sometimes a lady with a slim face looks as if she weighs 90 kilograms," said Szworak. One woman barely survived when the spirit she was carrying caught fire. She was taken to hospital suffering from severe burns.

Spirits are also smuggled in the petrol tanks of cars, behind the back seats and even in bags inside tires. "I routinely kick tires of cars and I know from the sound if there is alcohol in them," said one customs officer.

Szworak once saw a large loaf of bread that had had its inside scooped out so that it could contain two bottles of alcohol. "We have also confiscated thick books in which compartments for vodka or cigarettes were cut out," he said.

Chief customs officer Bujak says Poland's eastern border will be properly fortified by Jan. 1, 2003, when Poland hopes to join the wealthy western bloc. Most diplomats doubt the EU will start to expand eastward before 2004. Bujak complains that the EU's refusal so far to name a date for accession is complicating Poland's border preparations.

"If I knew the date, the customs office, local governments and banks could prepare comprehensive, detailed investment programs for the border," Bujak said. "I will need to move customs officers from the western to eastern border and prepare housing for them. The lack of an accession date generates huge costs for us."

Poland and the EU have spent about $200 million to upgrade the eastern border by opening modern terminals, building a new computer system, equipping border guards with infrared sensitive cameras, and installing radiation detecting devices. But many border crossings are still underequipped and understaffed. There are frequent media reports of corruption among poorly paid customs officers.

"Television shows nice new customs equipment and new terminals, but the border clearly needs much more investment," said Szworak in Medyka. "I have 70 officers at my customs point and I should have at least 140. Customs checks are carried out in primitive conditions. I still do not feel that we will really be part of the wall surrounding the EU."

Customs officials hope smuggling will be curbed radically once Poland is obliged to impose EU-style visas for Ukrainians and other eastern neighbors.

But the government, keen to avoid a new Iron Curtain on its eastern border, wants to limit travel freedom at the latest possible date and make the process as painless as possible, with long-term, multi-entry visas.

Many Polish entrepreneurs near the border fear they will go bankrupt if Poland's EU membership deprives them of regular customers from Ukraine.

"They account for nearly 50 percent of my turnover. I would have to close down if they stopped coming," said the owner of a clothes shop near the railway station in Przemysl.