Guest post: Poland-Russia relations not as bad as they seem

By Kinga Dudzińska and Anna Maria Dyner of PISM

To the west, relations between Poland and Russia are often perceived as negative, mainly due to their history. However, one evident success of their bilateral cooperation in small border traffic (SBT) between northern Poland and Kaliningrad Oblast, with almost a year and a half of evidence showing it’s working well.

The SBT agreement has made an important contribution to the debate on the liberalization of the visa regime between the EU and Russia. It has proved a success for the residents of Kaliningrad and Poland’s northern provinces. When the EU gave approval for Poland to give Russian residents of the enclave special permissions to travel freely within the expanded zone, expectations were focused on monitoring any negative aspects such as crime or overstays. Instead, the agreement, which went into effect in July 2012, has turned into something of a model for the EU on how to establish and operate wider special border zones, both in terms of the low infraction rate and the high economic and cultural benefits brought about by the increased border crossings.

SBT agreements are usually restricted to the immediate vicinity of a border (just 30 to 50 km), where family member or others who would have regular contact if not for the border need to cross frequently.

What was novel about the agreement between Russia and Poland was that it expanded the area to include the entire Kaliningrad region and nearly two entire voivodeships of northern Poland, and covered some 2.8m people.

EU travel is governed by the Schengen Agreement, which allows visa-free travel for residents of EU states and territories, and other laws enacted at the behest of the European Parliament and Council. Rules governing SBTs are strict, partly to keep traffic to reasonable levels but mostly for security reasons. However, one of the main results ofthe Polish–Russian agreement has been the very low number of infractions recorded.

Since July 2012, the Polish Border Guard has reported only seven violations in total, involving 15 adults and two children. Of those, one was an overstay and six were zone violations. In the past year about 6m people crossed the Polish-Russian border and half of them did it in the framework of the SBT. Meanwhile, some 941,500 Russians and 1.9m Poles may apply for an SBT permit through the other’s representative office (Poles make a request at the Russian consulate, and vice-versa). Up to July 2013, 150,000 Russians and about 40,000 Poles applied for SBT permits. The Polish consulate in Kaliningrad has been furiously approving permits and expects that in 2013 alone it will approve more than 150,000 and about 150,000 visas.

But the key success has been increased economic activity, mainly due to tourism. While the SBT agreement forbids permit holders from working or conducting business transactions such as trade, visitors are free to spend their money on goods and services, though there are some limits on certain items brought back across the border. One result is seen in the totals for VAT receipts, which can be refunded when purchases exceed 200 zlotys (about €47) and as long as customers obtain a proper receipt from the merchant and it is processed by the Border Guard upon exiting the country. These jumped by about 10 times from 2010 for visitors returning to Kaliningrad from Poland this year.

Such receipts are one indicator of the spending levels of visitors. Not all retailers issue such receipts: hotel accommodation and restaurant services are not VAT-refundable, so the actual amount spent by Russians in Poland is several times higher. In the first nine months of 2013, Russians spent 395.2m zlotys in Poland. It hasn’t been one-way, either. Spending by Poles visiting Kaliningrad represented as much as 51 per cent of all reported expenditures by Poles crossing any Polish land border.

The increased tourism and other people-to-people contacts have also led to greater cultural interest in each other’s country, with more visits by Russians recorded in Gdańsk, the largest city close to Kaliningrad Oblast. There has been rapid growth in the number of visitors since the SBT agreement was implemented, peaking at up to three and half times the previous amount. Kaliningrad residents have reportedly been returning from Poland and asking local authorities to make improvements in the region, such as road repairs. The enclave’s main road, known as the Berlin Highway, has even received EU support for modernisation.

If there is a downside to the SBT agreement it is that border control services are swamped at times, especially on holidays and weekends. While there are plans to expand some parts of existing crossing points to handle the increase in traffic, creating additional crossing points may be difficult as it would require significant diplomatic and political support. For now, both sides appear to be focused on making the best of what they have while planning future improvements and fulfilling the high number of SBT permit requests.

Major events in the region, such as last year’s Uefa Euro 2012 competition, hosted by Ukraine and Poland, and the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, attract huge numbers of visitors. Kaliningrad, where some of the World Cup matches will be played, will see increased interest and transit as will northern Poland, where visitors to Kaliningrad can be expected to go for sightseeing and shopping. Cooperation between the two countries on infrastructure projects, including border crossing areas, will be highly necessary.

The next step for Poland and Russia is to discuss visa-free travel for the citizens of the two countries, but particularly for Russians visiting Poland. That would represent a return to the time before Poland join the EU, when there were no visa regime between Poland and EU. Poland has a good opportunity to insist that the EU adopt changes to the visa system, especially if the positive results demonstrated by this SBT agreement continue to far outweigh the few negative aspects.

[This post was originally published with an incorrect photo. Our apologies to Kinga Dudzínska.]

Kinga Dudzińska is an analyst and Anna Maria Dyner is a political scientist at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Related reading:
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Guest post: why Poland wants Ukraine in the EU, beyondbrics
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Russia’s relations with its neighbours become increasingly chilly, FT