East-West tensions cramp style of Russian cross-border shoppers

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Grzechotki (Poland) (AFP)

Russian shopper Inna swipes her hand in a dismissive gesture as she waits in her car for a Polish border guard to check the visa stamped in her passport.

"It's all politics," insists the feisty middle-aged Kaliningrader who until recently could shop visa-free in an ample strip of territory on the Polish side of the border.

Warsaw suspended its local border traffic agreement allowing visa-free travel with Russia's highly militarised Kaliningrad exclave on July 1 over security concerns, all against the backdrop of the worst tensions between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

Poland imposed similar restrictions on Ukraine to boost security for July's NATO summit and a visit by Pope Francis, but then lifted them in August. Not so with the Russian territory.

Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak cites "reasons of security", but is keeping mum on what exactly caused Warsaw to deny Kaliningrad visa-free travel.

Sandwiched between Poland and fellow EU and NATO member Lithuania, Kaliningrad's one million citizens rely heavily on trade with their neighbours for everyday goods, including food, white goods and electronics.

Travelling with her daughter-in-law Nadezda, Inna told AFP that visa-free travel had meant their whole family could visit and shop in Poland, but say that many cannot afford the 100 euro ($112) fee for a 90-day multiple-entry Schengen visa.

"Now many of us can't go to Poland," said Inna, who declined to reveal her surname.

"It's not just shopping in Polish border towns, but also visiting larger cities like Gdansk, Gdynia and the opportunity to relax at the beach."

According to Polish customs agent Marek Borowiec, the geo-political tensions appear to have hit the once busy Grzechotki-Mamonovo crossing hard: traffic is down by around 30 percent since July.

"The drop was triggered not just by the suspension of (visa-free) small border traffic, but also by EU sanctions on Russia imposed two years ago over the Ukraine crisis and the systematic devaluation of the Russian rouble," he told AFP.

"Before July the queue of cars would stretch back half a kilometre -- about a two-hour wait. Now they just zip through."

- High unemployment -

Russians from Kaliningrad spent nearly 70 million euros in Poland last year, money that was a lifeline for border areas plagued by an unemployment rate of up to 30 percent.

Just 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from the Kaliningrad border, the Polish town of Braniewo has a lot to lose from the travel restrictions.

Supermarkets, clothing retailers, restaurants and hotels popped up after visa free travel was introduced in 20ll, making the town of 17,000 people a one-stop shop for Kaliningraders.

"We had hundreds of Russians coming everyday, now it's just a few," Mayor Monika Trzcinska told AFP, adding that jobs are at risk with some businesses reporting up to 70 percent in lost sales.

Like others in the town, Trzcinska is puzzled over the Polish government's pre-occupation with security.

"We don't feel threatened by Russians. We feel safe! I find it difficult to understand, but maybe there's something else going on that we don't know about."

- Security concerns? -

Moscow has stepped up its presence in the Baltic Sea area. Its jets regularly violate the airspace of smaller ex-Soviet NATO allies like Estonia and in April they even buzzed a US naval destroyer.

The US said in March it would deploy an additional armoured brigade of about 4,200 troops in eastern Europe from early 2017 on a rotational basis.

NATO also decided to deploy four multinational battalions to the Baltic states and Poland as of next year.

Warsaw suggests the US-led battalion on its territory will likely be deployed near Kaliningrad.

"Some of the NATO forces will be close to Kaliningrad borders," Michal Baranowski, Warsaw office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told AFP.

NATO strategists are particularly concerned by a nearby 65-kilometre (40-mile) stretch of Polish-Lithuanian border that is sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Dubbed the Suwalki Gap, they warn it is the Achilles' heel of NATO's eastern flank: its capture would amputate the alliance's three Baltic members and so shatter its credibility.

Fears that Russia could attempt an attack surged after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a move which sent East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.

"A big armed attack or scenario of 'little green men' or the hybrid threat is something that could happen in Kaliningrad," Baranowski told AFP.