Fri, Aug 14, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Inflation turns a Ukrainian border town into shopper’s paradise

By Rick Lyman  /  NY Times News Service, MALI SELMENTSI, Ukraine

The main street is a lovely ribbon of asphalt these days, a far cry from the rutted moonscape that once prevented even buses from bouncing into the tiny, decrepit village.

Lining the narrow road are an equally improbable series of sparkling shops, selling sports clothes, Gucci tank tops, dress shoes, Chanel perfume and flip-flops. There is even a sprawling wedding dress emporium where clusters of excited women contemplate a platoon of mannequins adorned with sequined chiffon and lace.

“It was a small village at the end of the world,” said Monika Mondok, standing outside a two-story emporium selling brand-name sportswear. “But then, when the gate opened, it blossomed,” she said.

The “gate” is a small cluster of glass-and-metal buildings cut seven years ago through the tall fences that mark the border between Ukraine and Slovakia. One pedestrian path leads from the village Mali Selmentsi to its Slovakian counterpart, Velke Slemence, another leads out. Uniformed border guards calmly peruse the travel documents of the bag-wielding shoppers and the decaying remains of a Soviet watchtower pokes above the corrugated tree line.

The saga of this small Ukrainian village, population 200, and its Slovakian twin, population 400, reads like a Twilight Zone episode joining the cruelty and absurdity of the 20th century with a most unlikely 21st-century denouement.

Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse at the end of World War I, the two medieval villages had long ago intertwined, sharing a church, community center and schools. In 1919, the combined area was given to Czechoslovakia. In 1938, it became part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

After World War II, with Ukraine absorbed into a surging Soviet empire eager to claim as much territory as possible, a new international boundary was drawn right through the center of town.

Overnight, families and friends a few blocks apart found themselves living in different countries, separated by surly border guards and, for 61 years, rarely allowed to visit one another. Even talking through the fence was forbidden.

During funerals, caskets were taken near the border so those on the other side could view the body. Residents outwitted the Russian guards by passing information in songs they sang in the fields. In one oft-repeated incident, a young girl who had been visiting her grandmother was separated from her parents and had to stand near the border fence several years later, so her mother could see her in her wedding dress.

Finally, in 2005, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and under pressure from residents and international attention, the Ukrainian and Slovakian governments allowed a pedestrian-only crossing to be cut through the fence.

Then came, perhaps, the strangest twist of all.

Since Slovakia is a member of the EU, its citizens can travel into Ukraine — which is eager to get closer to Europe — simply by presenting a passport, but citizens of Ukraine must still get a visa, which takes weeks and is, at US$38, beyond the means of many.

At the same time, prices for most consumer goods are considerably cheaper in inflation-choked Ukraine. So shoppers from Velke Slemence and other nearby Slovakian towns poured through the new border gate in search of bargains, transforming the little town into something like an outlet center, while Ukrainians faced much greater hurdles to get into Slovakia.

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