Former communist Poland, which has spent nearly five decades in the grip of the Kremlin, has long been one of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics. Currently, 94% of Poles see Russia as a “major threat,” up from 65% in 2018, according to a Pew Research poll.
But in Braniewo, located at the far end of Poland, as many locals jokingly say, Russia is traditionally associated with predictability and profit.
Today, with prices, energy bills and mortgage rates soaring, many here remember a time when Russian coal unloading terminals provided stable, well-paying jobs, when Russians went on jaunts shopping in Braniewo and where Poles traveled to Kaliningrad for cheap fuel. or, for some, to smuggle cigarettes, vodka or cars.
“There were queues for 2-3 kilometers there,” said Wojciech Pietrzak, 45, a border services agent, pointing to the empty street next to his house, the very last before the Gronowo village closed crossing point. “Everything was full of life; there were two exchange offices, three bars, a large car park.
About the Russians in Kaliningrad, he said: “They are as European as we are. There was no “Russophobia” in this region.
The first sign of trouble came in 2016, when Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government took the surprise decision to suspend visa-free transit between Poland and Kaliningrad for local residents. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic completely closed all four Polish-Russian border crossing points and only reopened two points issued since.
Some local business owners in Braniewo are furious.
“The Russians have spent so much money that they have lost their minds,” said one, on condition of anonymity. “There were goods, there were customers…”
“Everything was buzzing, everyone was happy, people were making money, living normally and building new houses, new stores had to be built too…And then Jarek came and shut everything down,” said the source, referring to PiS Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
“[Due to the Russians] Braniewo’s Biedronka had the highest turnover in the whole country, and now it is doing very poorly,” the source said, referring to the Polish discount supermarket chain. “The Russians were known to carry tons of sausages, smuggling them even in tires.”
BIRN has contacted Biedronka and a number of other retail businesses in Braniewo to comment on this story; many did not respond, while some declined to comment.