Border on the Olza River
Cross-Border Business (after 1990)
On the Friendship Bridge at the end of the 20th century (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection).
The border on the Olza River naturally generated smuggling problems. Both Poles and Czechs found goods in their neighbouring country which were particularly attractive. For the Poles these included all sorts of school supplies, such as folders, pencils, sport shoes and equipment, citrus fruit and chewing gums. The Czechs, on the other hand, had a taste for Polish sweets, folding doors, wicker goods, artificial Christmas trees, artificial flowers and grave wreaths. They bought and still buy Polish potatoes, cucumbers and onions in bulk quantities.
A typical phenomenon of the 1990s was organised smuggling of alcohol by the so-called “rum-runners”. With a relatively high unemployment rate, such a practice alleviated the effects of joblessness. The smugglers usually acted in groups of more than ten. Those who carried the goods across the border did not have to worry about selling them. Even the buyers were able to avoid the risk associated with trading in goods without paying excise tax by cooperating with criminal groups that printed counterfeit excise stamps.
Those who managed to make a lot of money smuggling started up new businesses. Some even set up tourist companies which organized shopping trips to the Czech Republic. On such a tour, a driver would park his bus near the border and the passengers crossed it to the Czech side a few times. At the end of the day, the bus, filled with goods, would go back to the base in Katowice, Rybnik or Gliwice. It paid off to buy a decrepit Nysa or Żuk truck onto which the goods that were carried and collected over a period of a few days were loaded and later distributed to different food and catering vendors.
At the beginning of August 2002 the Minister of Finance signed a regulation which reduced the excise duty on spirits by 30%. The law came into force on 1st October and was mainly intended to limit the rum-running dealings and trade in counterfeit goods. Already at that time it was estimated that the share of smuggled alcohol in overall consumption reached a mind-blowing 30%. The Polish reduction in the excise tax on spirits knocked out the entire frontier alcohol business in the Czech Republic within two weeks.
The calculations made by the Customs Chamber in Cieszyn showed that the traffic at the border crossings in the town centre fell almost by half after reducing the excise tax on alcohol. In 2002 the bridges were crossed by a million Poles, and in October that year it was only 660,000. On the other hand, the number of the Czech people crossing the border to Poland rose – from 760 to 800 thousand. However, the actual end of the smuggling practices did not take place until after 21st December 2007 when Poland and the Czech Republic joined the Schengen Area.
Memories of Zbigniew Damec (former Head of the Customs Office in Cieszyn):
As a nation, we are far from inferior to those with innate skills of multiplying their wealth through trade. The fact that travelling abroad was unrestricted resulted in hordes of tourists choosing Turkey as their destination, as it guaranteed high profits. The only condition was to have a valid travel document. Every day tens of buses, in which only a few, sometimes a dozen people, both women and men, would travel. Legally purchased foreign currencies were exported, for which hundreds of cotton underwear items, blouses, shirts, nightwear, etc. were bought from Turkish dealers. They were transported in bags so large that two people had to carry them. Naturally, such quantities of goods could not be allowed to enter the country as items for personal use, therefore duty was levied on them. In order to do so, customs officers had to count every item, which obviously lasted a few hours in each bus, but the profit of the State Treasury was around 40,000 zlotys. This resulted in endless queues and consequently, constant hassle. Some buses had to wait on the Czech side for more than 10 hours. It was nearly natural that such time was used by the “tourists” for the only entertainment available to them, which was drinking cheap alcohol in the Czech Republic, leading to even more heated disputes with customs officers.
Gradually unrest built up and the situation became more and more dangerous until one night, after a day during which not a single bus reported to the customs clearance, twelve buses drove through the border crossing in Cieszyn, breaking the barrier. A large group of completely drunk men wielding so-called “tulips” (broken bottles) in their hands got off the buses, singing “Oh Lord, who gave Poland Glory and Power” (“Boże coś Polskę”). After that the buses, not bothered by anyone, left the border crossing, this time breaking the exit barrier. The Czech police officers, the Border Patrol and Polish customs officers did not react in any way. The reason was simple: they were totally surprised by the insolence of the drunk mob and as during the Napoleonic Era when the General asked “Why didn’t you fire?”, the soldiers replied “because we didn’t have any cannons”. The customs officers had no weapons, and the few Border Patrol officers did not see any chances for effective intervention. The border crossing was beyond police control.
That event resulted in the Head of the Customs Office adopting a decision that customs clearance would follow a simplified procedure. As a result a customs officer would enter a bus, take oral declarations from each participant and after summing up the amounts, he would issue one customs document, collect the exact amount from the “tour” guide and let the bus go. The whole procedure lasted not more than an hour. Such a solution, despite the objections of the Central Customs Office caught on and was used until the internal market became saturated with goods from Turkey.
THE 1990s AND THE BORDER
Being able to travel abroad without a permit, by presenting only a passport which every citizen could have at home, came as a shock to some people. After all, not so long before, in order to go abroad, you would need to apply to a special authority with a substantiated request for a document that authorized you to cross the border, which was sometimes very stressful. The more enterprising people set up trading companies and tried not to let the transportation problems prevent the transfer of goods purchased abroad by searching for partners with own vehicles or even by buying some delivery trucks, often very battered, and travelling, for example to Karl-Marx-Platz in Vienna in order to buy exotic fruits of only a few-day shelf life. The fruit constituted around 80% of the entire bulk imported from the southern European regions. The remaining 20% comprised cleaning products, cosmetics, chocolate and pepper.
In a situation where it is possible to make additional, though illegal, profit, there will always be a group of presumptuous people so confident in their cunning and shrewdness that they will take the risk of smuggling and simply fail. Once, one of the smugglers announced his motto which apparently was quite common among the dealers at the time: “Once you win, once you lose, but the balance is always in plus.”
The freedom of movement had also another, evil nature. A significant number of our fellow countrymen were simply not intellectually mature yet, and to put it bluntly, their behaviour abroad was far from acceptable. On the contrary, they acted boorishly, earning the bad reputation concerning the propriety of the Poles.
An entirely new phenomenon in the history of the Czech-Polish border, probably not seen anywhere else in the world, was smuggling alcohol in the majesty of the law. This odd situation resulted from the rule that people returning to their country had the right to bring 0.5 litre of alcohol for personal use. No-one, however, predicted that a person could wander back and forth a few or even a dozen times, always carrying the permitted amount of alcohol. The phenomenon, and in fact, the persons who engaged in such practices, were called “rum-runners” (“mrówki”). It was a large group of people, the so-called dregs of the society, who were involved in such dealings for a small fee, while the organizers of the legal smuggling activity and the actual buyers of the alcohol were people from outside the border strip, who waited for the “suppliers” in their cars somewhere near the border. The customs services were not able to locate the buyers, as a “rum-runner” would not give the goods directly to the buyer, but to a go-between who wandered near the border crossing. The difference in the prices of alcohol on the Czech side and in Poland was the driving force of that business. Faced with an opportunity for making an easy profit, Czech vendors of alcohol tried to ease the runners’ efforts and located their points of sale as close to the border as possible.
The time came when the scale of the dealings started to threaten the continuation of alcohol production in Poland, as it was becoming less and less profitable.
The data collected by the Border Patrol at that time show that each day 45,000 people crossed the border in Cieszyn alone, 5,000 of which were ordinary tourists who travelled on business or for private purposes further than to the Czech Republic. Obviously, they would also return with the permitted amount of alcohol, but for private use only. Considering the legally permitted 0.5 litre of alcohol alone, every day Poland was “flooded” with 20,000 new litres of liquor which “leaked” through one border crossing only. The “rum-running”, as a folkloric phenomenon, was, in fact, associated only with Cieszyn. No other place could offer such convenient conditions for the dealings. One round, from crossing the border to the Czech Republic to returning, lasted around half an hour, including the waiting time spent in a queue to the customs clearance. Canny “rum-runners” were able to cross the border up to twelve times during one day. The removal of the excise duty on alcohol put an end to the undoubtedly profitable business. However, before it happened, the customs services in Cieszyn sent tens of letters and reports to the Central Customs Office, all to no avail. Only a personal visit of the Head of the Central Customs Office and witnessing the situation with his own eyes brought the desirable effect.
Memories of Adam Swakoń (former Head of the Customs Office in Cieszyn):
True story, 1990s, first day at work. We are going to the lower Cieszyn-Boguszowice border crossing on the Czech side (in Polish Kocobędz, in Czech Chotĕbuz). The place is busy like at a train station - hundreds of cars, tens of buses, plenty of people and off we went to work. A concrete platform, a few fellow officers, hundreds of bottles of alcohol: vodka, Czech rum, Yugoslav spirits called Royal and other unknown brands. We are trying to put the bottles in a row. There are no containers or boxes. Everything has to be driven to the warehouse. You could not help but notice the sad expressions on tourist smugglers’ faces. Most of them are professionals, so they will not suffer for long. They will count their losses and try to come up with a new “tourist” cross-border transfer. But some of them are ordinary people who wanted to make some money while travelling. Very often they are not even tourists, but elderly ladies and men who went to Hungary quite cheaply, taking some Polish fudges, hair driers and colourful sweaters with them. If they managed to cross a few allied borders, they tried to sell their goods at a Hungarian bazaar. They then bought cheap aluminium frying pans with pseudo-Teflon material on top and counterfeit alcohol – a few bottles per person.
One of the discoveries of the Polish customs officers (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection).
If they managed to cross a few borders, including the Polish border, they could consider themselves lucky. If they happened to be less fortunate, they went through luggage control. Their alcohol and frying pans were seized at the border and they would go back home sad and disappointed, while the custom officers were busy placing bottles of cheap alcohol on the concrete platform. Was that trade? Was that the beginning of the Polish private business, or perhaps pathetic attempts to patch up home budgets. Over time a large group of the “rum-runners”, poor people, hired by true bulk smugglers came into the scene. The “rum-runners” acted systematically, sometimes as allowed by the law – 1 litre of alcohol, and sometimes above what was allowed, hoping for some luck and tiredness of the border guards, they arduously carried across the border thousands of bottles of alcohol, usually counterfeit Czech vodka. Real home-based alcohol warehouses and production plants sprung up in Český Těšín.
The “rum-runners” were able to walk the few-kilometre route between the Freedom/Liberty Bridge and the Friendship Bridge more than ten times. Grotesque as it sounds today, it was a normal practice at that time: once they were carried across the border, the goods were deposited in officially operating luggage storages, traditionally located near the border in Przykopa Street. Obviously, the contraband was partially detained during border controls, transportation or in the luggage storages. However, the scale of the smuggling business was so big that despite clear successes of border guards and losses suffered by the smugglers, the business lasted for many years. Since the alcohol was of unknown origin, after going through appropriate procedures involving confiscation, the goods were usually handed over to health care services as denatured alcohol. The Czech border guards warned us that the alcohol was usually counterfeit, made from rubbing alcohol, coloured with wood stain and most often mixed in the old-type washing machines “Frania”, somewhere in home garages and sheds. It was evident in a real experience of my friends, who were trying to buy greater quantities of vodka for their brother’s wedding. After work, in the evening, they decided to visit the Czech side, choosing one of the border crossings near Cieszyn. Unfortunately, the liquor store was already closed, but on the advice of the local beer connoisseur, they visited a nearby house. The owner was very happy to sell a few boxes of liquor to the late customers, but at the same time, he was sorry to admit that while the alcohol was there, the bottle labels had not arrived yet. ..... Probably luckily for them, my friends decided that it would be safer to buy drinks with Polish excise stamp for the wedding guests.
In the period of Adam Małysz’s successes, Czech distributors created a special edition of vodka for Polish consumers. (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
An extract from an interview with an athlete from Cieszyn, a former Polish national representative in football:
– As a young man, you knew what it was like to be a “rum-runner”, is that right?
– I smuggled goods across the Polish-Czech border. Many people blame me for speaking so openly about it. It’s a pity, but I really have nothing to be ashamed of.
– What was it like?
– I wanted to earn some extra pennies and have my own pocket money. My family could barely make ends meet, and crossing the border was an effective way making some money. I was able to earn a hundred in four hours. I didn’t do it obsessively. I would bring vodka and other liquor from the Czech Republic. Usually, a bottle at a time, sometimes as many as I was able to fit under my jacket. You could do the best business smuggling in both directions. From Poland I would bring mostly clothes. Summer, 30 degrees. It’s boiling hot and I’m working my ass off wearing long pants and three hoodies, sweating like a pig. As soon as I was in the Czech Republic, I would take it all off.
– And the customs officers did not react?
– They knew us well enough. And we knew which ones would turn a blind eye to it. They often laughed at us, waved and let us go. There were also those with whom you wouldn’t even waste time trying. They made us go back right away.
Source: SPORT.TVP.PL, Author: Mateusz Karoń, 16th February 2017.