“We had to start everything from the beginning in this place,” said Krzysztof Iwaniuk, the mayor of Terespol Municipality (Gmina Terespol) in the far east of Poland.
I looked out from his office windows at green fields which rolled off into the distance. There was nothing out there but grass and trees and a hill, but this is set to change very soon. A new city will be built here.
Situated on the border of Poland and Belarus, Terespol Municipality sits on the crux of the EU of Europe and the CIS of Central Asia and Russia. This prime geopolitical position has led to the place becoming a key junction on the Silk Road Economic Belt, an international initiative to build up and link together land and sea ports, special economic zones, industrial corridors, and cities from the coast of China to Rotterdam.
The new city will be built in Kobylany, a small village within Terespol Municipality, and is slated to eventually provide housing for 30,000 people — or roughly four times the municipality’s current population. 60 hectares have been procured by the local government for this new development, with two or three thousand more hectares located nearby on state land that could potentially be tapped later on if needed.
While China has constructed hundreds of new cities over the past twenty years and is currently creating even more to support the Silk Road Economic Belt and its corresponding 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, this scale of fresh development simply isn’t common in Europe, a region where cities are generally age-old, almost immutable entities.
It is Terespol Municipality’s position as a transportation hub that’s spearheading this broader development. Nearly all of the regularly operated trans-Eurasia trains between China and Europe stop here to undergo customs clearance, transship cargo, and transfer containers between European and Russian gauge tracks. The E30 expressway, which runs from Berlin to Moscow, also passes right through the municipality, where there is a major road terminal near the Belarus border. Like at Khorgos Gateway on the China/CIS border in Kazakhstan, these logistical events have provided the impetus for a much larger development scheme to better leverage the area’s economic potential.
“It is developing in a natural way along these logistics lines,” Iwaniuk stated.
Krzysztof Iwaniuk himself has been looking east for over twenty years. As the municipality's first and only post-Soviet mayor, being elected every four years for the past 27 years, he has been working to bolster his constituency’s position as the gateway between Europe and Asia. Hanging from the front of the administrative building where his office is located is a banner saying "culture without borders" and in the lobby there is an up-to-date selection of China Daily newspapers prominently displayed upon a coffee table. On the cover of the municipality’s official map there is a bright red line connecting Terespol to Beijing — a feature that’s been there long before Xi Jinping began talking about One Belt, One Road.
“I remember my first visit here about 20 years ago,” began Krzysztof Szarkowski, an intermodal logistics manager for DHL in nearby Malaszewicze, “and he also informed me, 'Yes, we are on the main road from China to all the European countries. It is the future, it is the future, it is the future.' And he was alone at this time. He was totally alone.”
Iwaniuk is not alone anymore. From Western Europe through the Caucasus, Middle East, Central Asia to China, the "New Silk Road" has become a relevant topic for debate and a potentially big opportunity for those with the foresight to jump in.
However, the idea for Kobylany new city started many years ago when Iwaniuk began looking for a new location for the municipality’s administrative headquarters. In an uncommon political move he removed the region’s most populated, namesake town of Terespol from the municipality, as the financial resources needed to continue running this center would eat up most of the available funds that could otherwise go towards creating more promising new developments and better infrastructure for the rest of the municipality.
After a ten year effort, the land for Kobylany new city was purchased, and development was set to begin. Currently, the only building that has been constructed is the municipal government headquarters, which is a completely modern, three story building conspicuously sticking up out of the middle of a completely empty field. But in renders of what the new city is slated to become, the government building is at the center of a quaint town of two story villas with two car garages that are neatly arranged along tree-lined residential streets. The view is something like that of a wealthy English suburb, and nothing like anywhere else in the region it’s being built in.
“It is easier to do something from zero than to improve something old,” the mayor proudly exclaimed.
There are three parts to Terespol municipality’s development strategy. The first is a 40 hectare duty free and bonded zone that is near the dry port at Malaszewicze. It is owned by PKP, Poland’s national railway, and is currently a completely blank canvas awaiting development — ideally, awaiting development by a Chinese company, Iwaniuk pointed out. The second is a free industrial zone that’s across the street from the road transport terminal, which is currently in operation and has a variety of manufacturing and logistical enterprises located in it. The third is the new city at Kobylany.
Iwaniuk explained that Terespol municipality’s biggest problem and one of the main reasons for the new city is population outflow.
“We have control of a territory one-third the size of Warsaw and only have 7,000 citizens,” Iwaniuk explained. “This makes it very difficult to deliver the right infrastructure. Years ago we had more people than today. Today, people in Poland are going to bigger and bigger cities. They would rather go to a big city than build a new city. They don't come back until they retire.”
Terespol Municipality is distinctly rural, extending over 141 square kilometers and containing over 26 villages — the most populated having 2,000 people, the least populated having just seven. The idea which drove the creation of the new city was to concentrate this decentralized, intermittently populated expanse into an easier to service municipal core which could better leverage the area’s economic, infrastructure, and human resources.
A common criticism of Terespol Municipality’s Silk Road ambitions is that the place simply doesn’t have a large enough population to support the ensemble of logistics centers, warehouses, and factories that could otherwise be built there. The municipality is in the unusual position of having more jobs than people.
“Our problem is that we have relatively a lot of places to work, around 3,000 places,” Iwaniuk explained. “But people are living in other places. Our idea was to create a way for people who are working here to also live here. We wanted to create the conditions for them to stay.”
There is evidently a real demand for this, as all of the available land plots in the new city have already been sold as the new city edges closer towards coming to life.
"Everything has been done that he has planned 20 or more years ago," Szarkowski said of the mayor. "Everything."
The future prosperity of Kobylany is directly tied to Poland’s international relations with the countries of the CIS as well as China beyond, with an emphasis on the 300,000 person Belarussian city of Brest -- which is so close to Terespol Municipality that when the wind is blowing in from the east you can smell its factories. The existing border agreement with Belarus was signed over 60 years ago with the Soviet Union, and presents some archaic and extremely restrictive person-to-person and trade policies that are representative of another time.
“It is an abnormal situation,” Iwaniuk explained. “The situation today is different, the infrastructure is different, but from a legal point of view we are still in the Soviet Union period.”
However, there are initiatives that are in process to modernize and simplify border crossing procedures here, the effect of which could be a boon for Kobylany new city and its emerging industrial and logistics zones. Brest is the largest city anywhere near Terespol Municipality, and just a hundred kilometers away is Grodno, which has the largest population of Polish people on the Belarus side of the border.
“[The new city] can be sped up if relations with neighbors can be improved,” Iwaniuk said. “Belarussian people are probably ready to invest, to have their own plots also. Even Chinese people. This policy with our neighbors is not helping us. It's not helping trade exchange or people exchange.”
A very relevant copy of the China Daily in the lobby of Terespol Municipality's administrative building. Image: Wade Shepard.[/caption]
Development throughout Terespol Municipality has been gaining momentum. As China-Europe rail grows in popularity so too does interest in this key transportation hub on the EU/CIS border. Iwaniuk claimed that over the past few years his municipality has seen roughly a billion Polish zloty (around US$250 million) invested by various companies.
“That is not bad for seven thousand citizens,” he wryly added with a smile.
As far as Chinese interests go, there has been a regular procession of government delegations from an array of provinces parading through, asking questions and taking photos.
“Each big company here has partners in China from different provinces. Now that we've had visits from the big bosses we'll see what influence we have,” Iwaniuk said.
As the New Silk Road transitions from a concept and a dream to brick and mortar facilities, international trade pacts, and billions of dollars of commerce, well-positioned places like Terespol Municipality stand to develop into some of the most relevant business hubs of tomorrow.
“Our map for years have showed the most important road to China and now it's starting to be realized,” Iwaniuk said as he glanced out the window at the rolling fields of potential. “We only need the right partner for this."