Amid concerns Russia is evading trade sanctions via road freight through Belarus, protesters gather at a key crossing to stop the flow of trucks across the border.
KUKURYKI, Poland – The line of trucks waiting to enter Belarus from Poland at the Kukuryki-Kozlowiczy border crossing stretches out for at least 10 kilometres on a country road in Poland’s east.
Last week, a small group of activists gathered at the crossing to stop trucks from using the popular trade route between Poland and Belarus, a country that stands accused of helping Russia evade sanctions.
On Saturday morning, a group of about 200 activists gathered at the entrance to the crossing, renewing a call on European states to stop all trade with Russia. They were mostly Ukrainians, either long-term residents of Poland or recent refugees.
“This is one of the main points where trucks from Europe, Russia and Belarus cross the border in order to continue trading,” Svitlana Maistruk, 33, told TRT World. “All this money is going to finance war in Ukraine.”
Maistruk, who is part of Euromaidan, the pro-democracy movement behind the protest, worked for an anti-corruption organisation in Kiev before she was forced to flee the capital. She is one of a handful of people who, she says, have been taking turns camping out near the crossing since last week. In practice, since the protest started last week, the line of trucks headed to Belarus has been moved back about five kilometres from the crossing, where Polish police officers are redirecting traffic.
“When we started to stop the traffic [on the border] police didn’t interfere. They were quite supportive towards the protesters and trying to [ensure] our safety,” Maistruk explains, adding there had been some confrontations between drivers, some of whom she said were Putin supporters, and the protesters.
The UK, the EU and the US have imposed progressively harsh sanctions on Russia since its offensive on Ukraine began on February 24, with at least 816 civilian deaths confirmed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), including 59 children. The agency says the death toll is likely to be “considerably higher”, while the Ukrainian authorities say more than 2,000 civilians were killed in the southern port city of Mariupol alone, which has suffered heavy bombardment and a strangling siege that has left its residents trapped in the city with dwindling food and water supplies.
Russia accused of evading trade sanctions
Besides sanctions directly targeting individuals close to the Kremlin and international finance bans, western countries have imposed bans on trade with Russia. These include a ban on the export of luxury goods to Russia, aimed at its elite, as well as of products used by Russian firms and dual-use items – that is, goods that could be used for military purposes.
All Russian flights have also been banned from US, UK, EU and Canadian airspace, while the G7 has stripped Russia of its “most favoured nation” status, taking away its trading benefits.
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on the EU – which gets about 40 percent of its gas from Russia – to impose a blanket ban on trade. Polish member of the European Parliament Madgalena Adamowicz is among those to have raised concerns that Russia is using international road transport to evade sanctions currently in place.
While Belarus is also under EU sanctions, which have been expanded due to its support for Russia, Poland says it needs additional resources to carry out border checks.
“The sanctions the European Union has imposed on Russia are not enough,” says Eugenia Kubova, 28, another protester. Kubova has lived in Poland for eight years, but also has links to the movement that helped toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014 after mass demonstrations known as the Euromaidan protests. “They still trade with an aggressor country that kills children and people,” she added, “these trucks are going to Russia, and we want to stop them.”
Speeches by protest leaders are interspersed with chants of “free Ukraine”, as protesters, many wrapped in Ukrainian flags, prepare to stay on the border crossing until Sunday evening. More people kept arriving throughout the morning.
“I have been living in Poland for four years,” says protester Kateryna Nazar, who is taking part in the protest with her husband and a group of friends, as she struggles to find a polite translation for the anti-Russian slogan emblazoned on her t-shirt.
“Up until now we had a perfect life,” Nazar, who works as a lawyer, says. Her mother has recently escaped Ukraine, while her father is an army officer fighting in the frontline.
“But this has stopped our lives, and we want to do more to stop the war,” she says.