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Protests at Ukraine-Poland border pitting truck drivers against each other

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Poland is one of Ukraine's strongest allies in its struggle with Russia. But a trucking dispute has emerged between Polish and Ukrainian drivers, and a protest at the border is holding up thousands of trucks. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports from the Polish frontier.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: For two months, Leszek Stasiak, a Polish business owner, has been manning the night shift at the blockade at the Dorohusk border crossing in northeast Poland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE RUNNING)

NADWORNY: It's just after 9 p.m., and he and two other Polish protesters are finally allowing five trucks to pass their blockade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE RUNNING)

NADWORNY: They do this only once an hour. Military and humanitarian aid can pass and don't count. But the rest - they have to wait. On this night, just before New Year's, about a thousand trucks are stuck at the border, stretching back more than 20 miles into Poland.

LESZEK STASIAK: (Speaking Polish).

NADWORNY: "This is a fight for our existence," Stasiak tells us, his yellow reflective vest catching the light from the headlights of trucks at the front of the line.

He owns a small Polish trucking company with five truck rigs. He and other protesters are outraged over the European Union's decision to remove limits on how many Ukrainian drivers and businesses can enter Poland and the EU.

STASIAK: (Speaking Polish).

NADWORNY: His business is suffering, he tells us. He can't compete with the influx of Ukrainian drivers flooding the market.

STASIAK: (Speaking Polish).

NADWORNY: "Ukrainian drivers act like they're members of the EU," he says.

STASIAK: (Speaking Polish).

NADWORNY: "They take away our bread. They take away our work."

Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU used a permit system to keep the number of Polish and Ukrainian drivers crossing this shared border about equal. But the EU suspended the permit system as a way to support the Ukrainian economy and move goods like grain into the rest of Europe. The number of trucks heading in and out of Ukraine shot up, the majority of those being driven by Ukrainians. Stasiak and other Polish protesters say they want that permit system restored.

OLEKSANDR NEKRASOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "There are no toilets, no showers," says Oleksandr Nekrasov. He's been waiting nearly two weeks to cross the border.

NEKRASOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "There is war going on at home, and we are stuck here," he says.

While they've been waiting to cross, Russia launched a number of large aerial attacks, killing dozens. And these Ukrainian drivers have been following the news closely on social media. Stanislau Kolisnyk, who is driving a truck full of metal plates for protective vests, pulls up a video of the aftermath of one of those attacks in the city of Dnipro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

STANISLAU KOLISNYK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "We are willing to drive to these places that are dangerous," he says.

The Polish drivers - they just want to go to western Ukraine, where it's safer. Polish protesters have been meeting with the part of the Polish government that deals with transport to try to resolve these complaints. But Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk - he said any resolution to this blockade must come from the European Union, which lifted the permit system. Ukrainian drivers told us they're running out of food, money and water. Serhii Strelok, who's been waiting for 14 days, opens up his cab to show us his living quarters behind his seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR OPENING)

SERHII STRELOK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: There's a small gas stove, a mini fridge and a bed with blankets. His son, Yevgeny, who drives for the same Ukrainian transport company, has the truck directly in front of his.

You're telling me this wasn't planned - that you're right in front of each other?

S STRELOK: (Non-English language spoken).

YEVGENY STRELOK: (Non-English language spoken).

S STRELOK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It was not planned," they say.

Does that make it better?

S STRELOK: (Non-English language spoken).

Y STRELOK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: But being together in line has made a bad situation just a little bit better.

It's been more lonely for Oleksandr Khalamendyk, who is carrying factory parts and is just a few trucks from the front of the line.

OLEKSANDR KHALAMENDYK: (Non-English language spoken).

(LAUGHTER)

NADWORNY: He's been here for 13 days, but he's at the end of his journey.

KHALAMENDYK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He's been dreaming of the hot, proper meal he'll have when he's finally back in Ukraine and maybe some rest before he picks up the next load.

You're going to do this all over again?

KHALAMENDYK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Of course," he says. "I've got a family, and I need the money."

And then, it's time. He turns on his engine...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR CLOSING)

NADWORNY: ...And with a wave and a honk...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN HONKING)

NADWORNY: ...He's off. It's finally his turn to cross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DRIVING AWAY)

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, on the Ukrainian-Polish border. 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.

Elissa Nadworny
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.