As Polish haulers’ blockade of border checkpoints with Ukraine stretches into its second month, thousands of Ukrainian truckers remain stranded in huge lines waiting to cross into their homeland. They say they’re losing patience.
Though the estimated waiting time has somewhat dropped since the start of the protests on Nov. 6, it still exceeds 13 days at each of the four blocked border crossings. In an effort to circumvent the blockade, Ukraine started transporting trucks stuck at the Polish border by train on Dec. 7.
While humanitarian conditions at the border seem to have improved after Ukraine reported the death of two people stuck in the line, Ukrainian carrier companies are losing millions of dollars, and truckers are growing demotivated to continue doing their jobs.
“We have a war on one side,” Mykola Susla, a Ukrainian trucker who was stuck at the border until recently, told the Kyiv Independent. “And this is like the second front.”
Polish protesters threaten to continue their blockade until February, complaining that the European Union’s liberalization of transport rules for Ukraine prompted by Russia’s full-scale invasion has undermined Polish businesses, unable to match lower Ukrainian prices.
Polish-Ukrainian negotiations have so far had little success in unblocking the border as the Polish truckers’ main demand — to restore permit requirements for Ukrainian truckers — was deemed unacceptable by Kyiv and Brussels.
The Kyiv Independent spoke with several Ukrainian truckers about their experience of being stuck at the largest cargo crossing between Ukraine and Poland.
Life on the road
Taras Kovalchuk and Vitalii Salonik, two truckers from western Ukraine, have spent more than a week at the Dorohusk-Yahodyn border crossing in southeastern Poland. Judging by the speed at which the line is moving, they expect it would take three more days to reach the checkpoint two kilometers away.
They go to a nearby shop to buy food and heat it in Kovalchuk’s truck, which has a gas stove and a metal kettle, unlike Salonik’s car, completely unprepared for such conditions. Salonik is paid 10 euros in daily allowance by his Ukrainian employer but still has to spend some of his salary to make life there more bearable.
According to Volodymyr Balin, Vice President of the Association of International Car Carriers of Ukraine (AsMAP), Poles hired by Ukraine deliver hot food to the truckers at Dorohusk-Yahodyn. But Salonik said this was not enough to sustain them for a whole day.
A usual meal given to the truckers twice a day contains a bowl of soup, two slices of bread, and a bottle of water, while tea and coffee are offered separately, according to Salonik.
Conditions at Dorohusk-Yahodyn seemed worse just a week earlier, according to Ukrainian volunteer Valeriia Bezkluba, who came to the border on Nov. 26 to help the truckers.
“Some drivers were standing for about 20 days, they had no hot food there, they were running out of gas and water and didn’t shower,” she told the Kyiv Independent.
Two Ukrainian men aged 54 and 56 died while waiting to cross the border, reportedly of natural causes. Bezkluba said she heard in the line that one of the victims had died from an epileptic attack and another from heart failure, though this information is not confirmed.
The truckers told the Kyiv Independent they had to burn over 30 liters of fuel per day to stay warm and keep their vehicles operational in freezing temperatures.
No matter what weather, drivers have to take long walks to use portable toilets, located some four kilometers from each other along the road, said 62-year-old Susla.
Unable to leave their vehicles and cargo on the road, truckers in the line say they feel trapped and abandoned, waiting until Warsaw and Kyiv reach an agreement and they can get home.
“I'm starting to panic, lose my mind…Every day is the same… But you can't do anything, you have to stay here,” said Salonik.
“People have already tried (to avoid staying in the line) when they lost their patience. They drove closer to the checkpoint, but the police did not let them in. They had to turn around and go to the very end of the line, losing their previous place.”
Interactions with Polish side
Ukrainian truckers and volunteers who saw the strike told the Kyiv Independent that there were just several people blocking the road around 800 meters from the border checkpoint with their vehicles. The strikers are guarded by Polish police.
The police also escort trucks carrying dangerous cargo, humanitarian, and perishable goods out of the line to let them cross faster, but the ultimate decision of whether to allow them through is made by the strikers, according to the Ukrainian truckers.
One of the drivers stuck in Dorohusk, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Oleksandr, said he was waiting in line for five days, though his cargo, gas, is considered a dangerous one.
Salonik said that a Ukrainian trucker who was standing ahead of him loaded with humanitarian goods for a hospital, such as furniture and clothes, was not allowed to skip the line as the police deemed his cargo as non-urgent.
Some Ukrainian drivers have tried to talk with the strikers directly, but the police don’t let them through, according to the truckers.
A small demonstration of Ukrainian drivers in protest of the border blockade at Dorohusk-Yahodyn was dispersed by Polish law enforcement in minutes, according to Salonik.
All haulers who spoke with the Kyiv Independent said they were disappointed with Warsaw’s inability to unblock the border, while some suggested Russian involvement in the strike.
The leader of the protest in Dorohusk, Rafal Mekler, has business connections to Russia and Belarus and is a member of the Confederation of Liberty and Independence Party, known for its pro-Russian stance.
Susla acknowledged that Polish haulers were frustrated with the oversaturation of its local market by Ukrainian carriers but said he’s angered by how they are trying to solve the issue.
“There are complaints that need to be resolved. But not by taking people hostage. We are people from another country. Let us out and then stand (here), don't let us into (Poland),” he said.
“I've been around for so many years, I've traveled everywhere, but I've never seen such abuse.”
According to Balin, the Polish border blockade has led to a 50% decrease in the passage of vehicles through the whole Ukrainian border with the EU, seriously harming Ukraine’s economy.
Every extra day spent in lines at the border crossings costs Ukrainian haulers around 300 euros, Balin told Ukrainian Radio, and fuels further frustration among the drivers.
Susla said he knows four truckers who quit their jobs because of the blockade and a businessman in Kyiv Oblast who’s considering closing his factory as he can’t wait any longer for produce from the Netherlands and Germany.
There is hope the negotiations on unblocking the border will accelerate when Poland gets a new government.
The current Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is expected to lose the parliament's vote of confidence on Dec. 11 and is likely to be replaced by opposition leader Donald Tusk, who has criticized the "inaction" of Morawiecki’s government regarding the blockade.
According to Balin, though the Polish haulers’ demand to restore the permit system for Ukrainian truckers is unrealistic, they can get certain benefits if Warsaw urgently unblocks the border.
“The situation is a dead end for them because everyone has said that the permit system will not be restored,” Balin said.
“I think they should remove the blockade, get certain advantages from standing there for a month, and continue working.”