Friday, April 26, 2024

A strategic corridor on the Polish border: the European Achilles’ heel? (Part 2)

The American “Politico“ recognized it as “the most dangerous place on Earth”. And although experts are generally skeptical about it, it still arouses great emotions. What is the Suwałki Gap really?

Karol Gac


In early July, Polish President Andrzej Duda and his Lithuanian counterpart Gitanas Nausėda visited soldiers stationed on the Suwałki Gap to demonstrate that the region is safe. – Here, on Polish and Lithuanian soil, in this part of Europe, there are NATO troops. This land is guarded by the strongest defensive alliance in the world and, as we would like to emphasize with President Nausėda, this land is safe – said Andrzej Duda.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of National Defense Mariusz Błaszczak, who accompanied the President, spoke in a similar vein. – We are developing our armed forces, Polish and Lithuanian. We are cooperating with each other, creating interoperability. All this serves the security of our homeland. We can say directly that thanks to our efforts, thanks to our very good cooperation with the allied forces, the Suwałki Isthmus is safe – assured Błaszczak.

Recently, the head of the Ministry of National Defense approved a contract for the delivery of Ottokar Brzoza tank destroyers for the Polish Army. The first prototypes will be ready next year and will be delivered to the 14th Armor-Piercing Regiment based in Suwałki, in the area of ​​the Suwałki Gap.

The head of the National Security Office points out that, apart from ad hoc measures, Poland has been pursuing a policy aimed at strengthening this region for many years. – It is about ensuring a high potential of deterrence and defense on the Suwałki Gap, so that a potential aggressor is aware that any hostility will be repelled from the first day of the conflict, and therefore burdened with high costs and with no chance of success – Paweł Soloch tells us.

The authorities of the Podlaskie Voivodeship, where the isthmus is located, also assure that the region is completely safe. – We see this region through the prism of the same needs as the other parts of the voivodeship. We don’t think of it as merely a point on a map. We want people to live as well as possible there – Dr. Tomasz Madras, Deputy Voivode of Podlasie, tells “Do Rzeczy”. In his opinion, hysteria is always “the worst possible reaction”.

It is worth adding that the Suwałki Gap is a region where the Baltic states are integrated with other EU countries through Poland. A Polish-Lithuanian energy bridge has been commissioned in this area, and work is currently underway on the synchronization of power systems. That’s not all, however. – Since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea on the Polish and Lithuanian sides of the border, it has been realized that we need to cooperate. The Suwałki Isthmus also includes Via Baltica, Rail Baltica, but also the Poland-Lithuania gas pipeline commissioned this year. This is proof of the need for closer cooperation, but we must remember that every piece of our country is important. Certainly, there is no reason to panic – the deputy voivode of Podlasie assures us.

The isthmus stands by tourism

The importance of these assurances is easy to see when talking with the people who are responsible for tourism in the region. The discussion about the Suwałki Gap lacks any mention of fact that this is an incredibly beautiful region full of nature. The beauty of the local landscapes is stunning. It is largely forested and crisscrossed by lakes and rivers. – We have a wonderful natural environment here: extremely clean lakes and beautiful forests. It is a perfect place for active tourism and a paradise for cyclists, canoeists, and horse riders. Nature in this region is not as exploited as in other parts of Poland. In addition, it is worth paying attention to the fantastic cuisine, which is based on ingredients found in local nature and forests. It is extremely safe here, and the only threat to tourists may be the famous “spirit of the forest” – Marcin Leoszko, president of the Augustów Tourist Organization, tells “Do Rzeczy”.

Leoszko points out, however, the negative consequences of the discussion about the isthmus. – First, “Politico” wrote an article that was copied by the Polish media. It created the impression that “something” is happening on the Suwałki Gap and that it is a dangerous place It certainly is not. Moreover, the name itself is unfortunate as it suggests that something will be happening here […]. It certainly does not help tourism, because this slogan creates a negative connotation and image for our potential guests. Especially since tourism faced many difficulties in recent years. First there was a pandemic, then an attack on the Polish border, and now the war in Ukraine – adds Leoszko.

The mayor of the Płaska commune sees the situation in a similar way, emphasizing that although the region is absolutely safe, looking for media sensations certainly is not helping him. – In Finland, which has a much longer border with Russia than Poland, the inhabitants of the border regions are not particularly afraid of their location. They live peacefully and are living on with their daily lives. Similarly, the inhabitants of the Suwałki, Sejny, and Augustów counties are living without noticing any changes. Unless we are talking about economic and social issues, because in that regard there are changes here, and they are multi-directional. I can also add that it is definitely safer this year than in previous years, because you can see the increased presence of the army and police in the border regions – Wiesław Gołaszewski tells “Do Rzeczy”. He also points to the importance of tourism for this region. – We have lived here peacefully so far. Each year we were visited by thousands of tourists hungry for clean air, peace, lakes, and true nature. Tourism has become the most important branch of subsistence for local families. Income from tourism guarantees the continuation of native settlements in places remote from urban centers and labor markets. Forcing the topic of “the most dangerous place on Earth” just because it is demanded by the Internet or television viewers is simply stupid –the head of the Płaska commune indicates. And he adds: – It is very safe here. We improved tourist, road, and other infrastructure. I invite everyone who wants to rest by the lakes to come to the Augustów Canal and the beautiful commune of Płaska.

We asked the 1st Deputy Voivode of Podlasie, Tomasz Madras, about the negative impact on the tourism of media publications. – As for the measurable losses that may ensue, and may already have, we will never really know the full picture. It is impossible to check how many tourist arrivals or commercial contacts could not have been realized, because someone inaccurately assessed that this is a dangerous region – Madras explains.

The subject of the Suwałki Gap is recirculating from time to time. For instance recently, when Lithuania banned the transit of goods subject to EU sanctions through its territory to and from Kaliningrad, which caused discontent in Moscow. And although it is worth being aware of its strategic importance, it is also worth remembering that there are also people living in this region. And the media frenzy is certainly not helping them.

This article was published in August 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.