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Why Polish truck drivers are blocking traffic at the Poland-Ukraine border


Polish truckers and transport business owners are blocking border traffic at the border between Poland and Ukraine. They are protesting the removal of limits on how many Ukrainian drivers and businesses can come to Poland and the EU.


After more than a year of essentially free movement into Poland, Polish drivers are struggling to compete. And this protest is souring a once extremely supportive, neighborly relationship between the two countries.

MARTIN: The new Polish prime minister is planning a trip to Kyiv and says this blockade will be on the agenda. We're turning now to Elissa Nadworny, who is at one of these blocked border crossings. Good morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So could you just start by telling us exactly where you are and what you've been seeing there?

NADWORNY: So I'm at the Dorohusk border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. It's one of a handful of border crossings that process these big trucks. And protesters here are limiting the number of trucks that can cross an hour. It ranges from 1 to 5, kind of depending on the day and the mood. There are some exceptions that we've been able to see. Military and humanitarian aid are getting to pass through. But the rest - they have to wait. And that means the line here of Ukrainian trucks is about a thousand at the moment. It's just as far as the eye can see, backed up more than 20 miles. And drivers wait weeks.

MARTIN: Wow, a thousand trucks waiting to cross. That's something. So what specifically do these protesters want? The Polish protesters - what do they want?

NADWORNY: Well, before the war, there was a permit system for drivers. And Poland and Ukraine got equal numbers. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU suspended that permit system to help Ukraine keep the economy afloat. And the number of trucks shot up, of course, with most of those drivers being Ukrainian. And the Poles - they want that permit system back. So remember, Poland is Ukraine's main connection to Europe. There are no flights in and out of Ukraine. The Black Sea is mined. So this land border is essential. Last night, Leszek Stasik (ph) was manning the blockade. He's a Polish business holder holding up Ukrainian drivers. And he's been here at night in the cold for months. He says this is a fight for his existence.

LESZEK STASIK: (Speaking Polish).

NADWORNY: He owns a small company with his son. They have five trucks. And business has really suffered, he says.

STASIK: (Speaking Polish).

NADWORNY: He says Ukrainian drivers - "they drive around like they're members of the EU like us. And they take away our bread. They take away our work." He says waiting for weeks at a border crossing - that's just the job of a trucker. And he's done that plenty, he says, in his decades of being a driver himself.

MARTIN: So what are the Ukrainian drivers telling you?

NADWORNY: Well, you know, the ones at the front of the line have been here for almost two weeks. And many of them can't believe that this is happening right now while Ukraine is at war. Imports to Ukraine are way down. And that impacts taxes and, ultimately, the war effort because everything is connected. We talked with a man named Yaroslav (ph) waiting to cross. He's a Ukrainian truck driver. He's got a load of furniture. And he's been here at this border for 14 days, running out of water, food and money.

YAROSLAV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: He's saying, "if the Poles are striking, don't let us come into Poland. But why are you not letting me go home?" You know, other drivers told us similar sentiments. One said, go block the Parliament in Warsaw. Leave us here at the border out of it. Of course, protesters actually did that back in the spring, Michel, and it didn't work. So they started the protest here.

MARTIN: Well, is there a strategy for bringing this to an end?

NADWORNY: Well, Poland does have a new government, so there's a chance they're going to work with Ukrainian officials and the EU to figure out a compromise, to try and keep both sides happy. Protesters are telling us they're going to be here for the long haul. And Ukrainian truckers are saying, we're actually going to keep coming back despite the wait.

MARTIN: That is Elissa Nadworny. She's at the border between Poland and Ukraine. Thanks, Elissa.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 28, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A production error in an earlier audio version of the story led to the incorrect identifications of a Polish protester and a Ukrainian driver.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.