Featured Article

“This is big business protesting". Reporting from the blocked Polish-Ukrainian border

Published on Dec 14, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 11th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on December 14th, 2023. The article was written by Kateryna Pryshchepa for Liga.net and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

LIGA.net learned about the lives, thoughts and expectations of the Ukrainian truckers blocked by the Polish protesters near the Medyka-Shehyni checkpoint.

Read the original article here (published 1 December 2023 by Kateryna Pryshchepa)

Since early November, Polish protesters have blocked Ukrainian truckers from passing through the Ukrainian-Polish border. In the driving seat of this protest is Rafał Mekler, a member of the far-right anti-Ukrainian party Konfederacja and owner of a haulage company.

Only a fraction of Polish hauliers are on the protest, yet they have had an impact. Their list of demands includes limiting the access of Ukrainian hauliers to the EU as much as possible, and prioritising the Polish hauliers when it comes to transporting goods between the EU and Ukraine. The partial blockade of the Medyka-Shehyni checkpoint began on 23 November, and a full blockade was due four days later.

At eight in the morning of 28 November, the Medyka-Shehyni border checkpoint (located about 15 kilometres from Przemyśl in Poland) is quiet. It is snowing, and passenger cars driving to Ukraine are scarce. The crossing for cargo trucks has been blocked for almost a week.

Another blockade in Lublin Voivodeship, to the north of Medyka, began in early November. The Polish authorities approved the blockade from 3 November 2023 to 3 January 2024.

Only five protesters visible

A few hundred metres from the border, I see official protesters on the side of the road next to the pedestrian crossing: about five people and at least a dozen policemen and police cars.

Some protesters are standing with police officers in bright acid-green vests with ‘POLICE’ patches on their backs, smoking and chatting. I hear snatches of conversation: it seems a potential problem is being discussed.

This could be about a counter-protest by Ukranian truck drivers, which we later find out is happening.

Nearby, there’s a large tent that the “protesters” enter and exit, branded with a banner “Deceived village”. From a tree nearby hangs another banner: “Road transportation is our national treasure”. Apart from that, nobody else is around. Occasionally, passenger cars or those lucky truckers who finally were allowed to pass from the queue move either towards the village of Medyka or the Ukrainian border.

The queue of blocked trucks begins about a kilometre farther, away from the border, stretching tens of kilometres deep into Polish territory. The Polish authorities prohibited the truckers from forming continuous queues, so it’s divided into segments. Therefore, groups of trucks can be seen along the route towards the border from near Przeworsk (55 kilometres from Medyka) and up to a point a few hundred metres away from the border crossing point.

The police keep the queue in order, with a car parked ahead of each of the sections. They make sure that the truckers won’t pass through until they are allowed.

I go to Przemyśl, where I meet with my driver. This is 15 kilometres from the border. The authorities have ordered the stuck trucks out of the city and they now queue up along a side road parallel with the border.

“Showering with wet wipes:” life in a truck queue

Several hundred trucks occupy a four-kilometre stretch of street outside Przemyśl, which is only a part of the truckers stuck at the border. At the head of this segment, gather a group in bright orange and acid-green vests.

They are trying to start a pickup truck that stalled, and are helping the young female volunteers who were transporting this vehicle to Ukraine, for the Armed Forces. In the group, there are truckers from the Lviv, Khmelnytskyi, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. I approach them to ask about how they are doing.

“We’ve been stuck on this very spot since eight p.m. yesterday,” shares Vasyl, a trucker from the Lviv Oblast. “Nobody knows when we’ll be able to go any farther.”

Along with his colleagues, Vasyl has been waiting for five days for a chance to cross the border. Another trucker, Oleksandr, shares the experience of his father, who’s also a trucker, at the Dorohusk-Yagodin checkpoint. He spent seventeen days in a similar queue on the border and was only able to cross several days ago.

When asked whether they tried discussing the matter with the protesters at the border, Andriy, a trucker from Mykolaiv Oblast, says: “The police won’t let us, as they’re afraid for the protesters’ safety.”

It looks like it’s the Polish police who are blocking the passage near the border on behalf of unknown protesters, even if this is not the case. The police officers, dispatched to the border by dozens, are guarding each of the truck queue segments near the border, making sure nobody can skip the queue. That order, the truckers say, is determined by the blockers. As for the latter, their presence on the border can be as few as five to seven individuals at a given time, and their presence is representative and to check up on what is happening.

I ask the truckers about their daily life. The worst part is that they can’t take a proper shower or have a hot meal, so, in terms of personal hygiene, they make do with wet wipes. Unable to abandon their fully loaded trucks, they can’t even spend their nights at motels, as they would have to leave their truck behind on a highway.

Toilets two kilometres away

Another problem is the lack of toilets. Several days ago, the Chief of the Przemyśl Police ordered the delivery and installation of two portable toilets for the drivers waiting in the queue.

“But that’s only two toilets on a four-km stretch of road. If I have to go, I need to run two km to the nearest toilet, and then come two km back,” one trucker explains.

There were several days when local volunteers and the local fire department provided hot meals, once a day. However, it costs about PLN 50 per day to feed one person [~EUR 11.55], which is about UAH 500. Add to this the cost of fuel to keep the truck running and warm, which is another UAH 1000 [~ EUR 23.10] a day.

Polish truckers “don’t want to stay in Ukraine”

I ask the drivers about their thoughts regarding the demands voiced by the Polish blockers.

“They have a distaste for our new system [of allocating who can cross the border first],” says Vasyl. “Before, we used to cross the border on a first-come, first-served basis. In April, however, a new take-a-number system was introduced, where we only come to the checkpoint then our number is called. It takes about five to seven days from the moment we get our number to the moment we get to the checkpoint, and the Poles don’t like that they have to spend all that time in Ukraine. Before, they used to just bribe the customs officers and pass the border faster.”

Vasyl and his colleagues also recall how the Polish customs officers’ strike ended a few days before the blockade began. The customs officers, who were protesting against the government over pay, took their time while conducting deliberately long checks on every cargo, and not facilitating a swift border crossing.

Vasyl is returning from Lithuania, where he carried a cargo of soybeans from Ukraine. On his way back, he is taking a cargo of car parts. When I ask about his thoughts on accusations by the Polish truckers that Ukrainians are taking their jobs, Vasyl and his colleagues say that they deliver cargo from Ukraine to the EU, bringing back exported goods from various countries. These are not “legitimate hauls” for Polish truckers, so the threat is not clear.

While I was talking to the truckers, their colleagues started one of the volunteers’ pick-up trucks, and they began working on the other.

Strike “organised by big business”

Close to the border, I found another group of blocked truckers, with two police cars nearby. The police watch closely the truckers — and me, too.

I approach the group and strike up a conversation. To my surprise, the group of Ukrainian-speaking truckers usher forward… a Pole. Jacek is a Polish trucker who, along with his Ukrainian colleagues, has been blocked near the border in Medyka for almost a week. His truck carries a cargo of electric cables, which are needed in Ternopil.

Jacek reminds me that among those who initiated the blockade are not just the Polish truckers afraid of the competition, but also business owners who used to haul cargo between the EU and Russia and Belarus. The blockade is their way of hinting at some compensation for their losses.

“This entire protest is organised by large businesses, while ordinary people like myself are suffering,” says Jacek.

At the same time, Jacek is not opposed to the protest per se and even supports the idea of going back to the system of permits for the Ukrainian truckers hauling cargo between Ukraine and the EU. He believes that this way, there would be fewer “job takeovers”.

“This strike, however, is poorly planned,” he says. “You can’t just block every border crossing and leave people like myself helpless, with no support whatsoever.”

When asked about the recently introduced take-a-number system and bribes at the Ukrainian Customs’ Office, Jacek says that it’s up to Ukrainians to deal with their own corruption issues.

As I’m talking to Jacek and his colleagues, only three trucks per hour are granted passage to the border. The police take it upon themselves to negotiate between the truckers and the blockers.

Tired of waiting, Jacek decided to act. He organised a group of truckers from his queue, including those working for the same company as himself, and they made their own demands. Now, they are threatening to block the pedestrian cross-border passage leading from the border to Przemyśl, should the protesters and the police not increase the number of trucks allowed to cross the border.

Our group is approached by a police officer of the patrol unit guarding the queue, who says that the negotiations are still underway.

“It’s been two hours since we voiced our proposal,” says Jacek. “If there’s no consensus in another 30 minutes, we’re starting our own blockade.”

The police officer assures us that good news is expected soon.

Nearest store: ten kilometres away

At the end of the line stands the truck of Mykhailo from Ivano-Frankivsk, loaded with car parts from Gdansk for Ukraine. To Poland, he brought a cargo of farm produce. He isn’t planning to participate in Jacek’s blockade of the pedestrian passage. Along with the rest of his colleagues in the queue, he listens intently to negotiations on the walkie-talkie.

Having learned that I came to his section of trucks by car, Mykhailo asks if I can pick up some cigarettes for him, should I pass a store. After seeing some movement, we are joined by Mykola whose truck is parked two spots ahead of Mykhailo. Mykola is hauling metal products to Ukraine, and he’s also run out of cigarettes. The nearest store is about ten kilometres away.

I take the order and plan to head for a Biedronka store in Medyka, only 100 metres off the pedestrian border with Ukraine. The majority of their customers consist of Ukrainians from the border towns and villages.

“If you come across our compatriots selling cigarettes near the border, it’s cheaper to buy from them,” instructs Mykhailo, while seeing me off. Having learned about the reason for our trip to the border, the taxi driver takes me to a spot in Medyka where some Ukrainians sell smuggled cigarettes and alcohol. “It is cheaper there,” he explains.

As soon as I approach a group of Ukrainian women, their hands reach out, holding several cigarette packs. I get the feeling of being a rich American tourist cruising a poor country. Stocked up with cigarettes, I head back to Mykola, dropping off some for Jacek and his colleagues.

Upon seeing my taxi, another trucker, Yurii, approaches me. Stuck in the same queue, Yurii is hauling a truckload of cat food to Rivne. He’s completely run out of human food, so he’s trying to seize the moment to go shopping. So we take another trip to Medyka, this time to Biedronka.

Yuri replenishes his food, cigarettes, and water. On our way to the blocked trucks, we are stuck in another traffic jam: Jacek and his colleagues delivered on their threat and started their blockade of the Medyka-Przemyśl road.

About two dozen people are walking back and forth across the road, having formed a human chain and thus stopping the traffic. Additional police patrols are watching over the demonstration, with senior officers among the police.

At a certain point, news arrives that the protesters have agreed on small concessions and increasing the hourly passage from three to eight trucks. Jacek and his colleagues, who initially demanded passage for ten trucks per hour, take this offer and step aside from the crossing. The traffic jam dissolves in seven minutes, along with most of the police patrolling the protest.

Protest “hitting Polish trucking profits”

Yurii and I get back to his truck. Delighted with the news, he invites me to stay in the cabin of his truck while I am waiting for the queue to move. I agree, as after several hours of walking in the snow I can no longer feel my legs, almost up to my knees.

Yurii works for a trucking company from the Polish city of Zgożelec. He says that 70 percent of his fellow truckers are Ukrainians, while the company is owned by a Pole. The truck that Yurii is stuck in has a Polish registration. The truckers are paid ten to 15 percent of the cost of the haul they’re performing. I ask Yurii whether the owners of his company are concerned with the situation on the border.

“They are, as all this time the company has been losing profits,” says Yurii. “They transported fewer goods over the same period. I was supposed to be in Rivne long ago, and on 1 December, I was supposed to start hauling my newly loaded truck from Rivne and back to Poland. Now, I won’t be able to make it on time.”

The company owner is less concerned about the conditions their truckers have to endure. That’s something the truckers have to deal with on their own.

After hours of waiting, the queue starts to move, and Yurii and his truck advance the much-anticipated one hundred metres. It’s about two p.m., and this is Yurii’s biggest advancement during the day.

I bid my farewell to Yurii and am about to return to Przemyśl when I notice Georgian licence plates in the queue of trucks. The driver, Badri, is hauling a truckload of passenger cars from Gdańsk in Poland to Lviv in Ukraine. His company was contracted by someone from Ukraine. Unlike the other truckers, Badri has a special permit to travel through the EU. However, he’s waiting in line with the rest of his colleagues.

Badri is aware of the pedestrian blockade, as he’s been listening to his neighbours’ radio conversations.

“The two governments have to come to some terms and stop this,” he says.

I’m on my way when I get a phone call from Jacek, who is happy.

“We’ve proved that we weren’t all bark and no bite, and that we can’t be ignored,” he says. “Some man from the Ukrainian Consulate paid us a visit, asking us not to block the passage. He promised that he had negotiated for five trucks per hour to be allowed passage. But several minutes into our blockade, we negotiated a better bargain than they did over days of negotiations.”

That was the first mention of a government representative involved in the situation in Medyka.

On my way back to Przemyśl, I listen to the news on the radio. Negotiations on the unblocking of the border with Ukraine have been fruitless. When I asked my driver for his opinion on the situation, he is evasive:

“I have no interest in politics,” he says. “But it’s clear that this has to end. The governments on both sides have to come to some agreement.”