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Warsaw’s booze-to-CDs bazaar feels pre-poll heat

September 22, 2005

By Nathaniel Espino

WARSAW (Reuters) – Fake Puma shoes are flying in all
directions in a busy section of Warsaw’s bazaar — the security
guards have tipped off Nigerian traders that inspectors are
coming and they’re scrambling to pack their wares.

It’s a typical morning at the Polish capital’s biggest
market — a defunct football stadium where traders from around
the world hawk everything from sofa sets to pirated DVDs, icons
to baby ferrets.

Now illegal traders at the market — described by
organizers as the biggest in Europe — have another worry: some
conservative politicians, set to form a coalition government
after September 25 elections, have vowed to shut them down.

“The stadium is known for unsanitary conditions, crime, a
lack of any standards … If we want to be a modern capital
city, it can’t go on,” says Jan Oldakowski of the Law and
Justice (PiS) party.

Warsaw’s mayor Lech Kaczynski, a fellow PiS member and the
party’s candidate in next month’s presidential election, wants
the central government to shut down the illegal traders, move
the legal ones to a new site and rebuild the stadium.

The plans may be still on the drawing board but with the
PiS in second place in recent opinion polls ahead of both
elections, the bazaar’s traders might have cause for concern.

Rain or shine, Poles from all walks of life, but mostly
those on low incomes, can be found browsing at the open-air
market where 4,500 merchants ply their trade, compared to the
estimated 4,000 at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Music, film and software groups say the stadium accounts
for 25 to 30 percent of all pirated material — excluding
Internet piracy — sold in the European Union’s biggest new
member.

In theory, the security guards are hired to fight piracy
but they’re on good terms with the traders.

Some guards joked with a Nigerian as he tied up dozens of
shoes in a sheet, balanced the bundle on his head and raced off
to escape the inspectors, who were coming to check permits.

During a half-hour stroll around the top of the stadium —
controlled by an Armenian gang, traders say — 43 merchants
made muttered offers of illegal music, films and software, and
untaxed cigarettes and alcohol.

GLOBAL VILLAGE

Once known as the Russian Market, dominated by traders from
the former Soviet Union selling souvenirs like nesting dolls
and Lenin pins, today the stadium is a global village.

A Polish woman, who gave her name as Malgorzata and who
paid her way through four years of university by selling
pirated DVDs, said the Armenians, Poles and Vietnamese who
control the three main areas don’t stray onto each other’s
turf.

Within each section, things are calm, said Jimmy from New
Delhi who sells pirated software and did not want to give his
last name.

“Nobody fights, although there’s a lot of competition,” he
said, leaning on a wall and chewing dried sunflower seeds — a
Slavic habit he has picked up here.

Police officers banter with traders in a pidgin blend of
Polish and Russian — the stadium’s lingua franca, used by
African shoe traders to flirt with Ukrainian cigarette sellers.

Dominic Kinoulty of market research firm Kinoulty Research
says people who do their daily shopping in expensive malls
still visit the stadium for black-market bargains.

“The people buying clothes there are bazaar buyers because
that’s where you get the cheap stuff,” he said.

“The others are really saying ‘Why am I paying Microsoft
… when I can get 63 programs on a CD-ROM for five zlotys?’
It’s more an anti-establishment thing than a lack of money.”

TOURIST ATTRACTION

The traders aren’t the only foreigners at the stadium,
listed in guidebooks as a tourist attraction, says Janusz
Grobicki of the Adam Smith Center, an economic think-tank.

“I used to live nearby, and I would meet employees from
Western embassies and even the odd ambassador. I don’t think
they were there out of economic necessity.”

In a 2005 report on crime in Warsaw, the stadium was
mentioned as a reason for high crime rates in surrounding
areas.

Bazaar operator Damis says its hands are tied by Polish law
– and by human nature.

“The guards are the way they are. I change them often, but
they’re still tempted,” said Damis Chief Executive Officer
Bogdan Tomaszewski, who estimates the bazaar’s annual turnover
at 1.5 billion zlotys.

He says even when foreign ringleaders are caught, they
can’t be deported if they’re the subject of an ongoing criminal
investigation. Malgorzata says that considering the slow pace
of Polish justice, that suits them just fine.

After several previous attempts to shut the bazaar failed,
she’s skeptical about the new drive to close it down.

“The stadium is an embarrassment for Warsaw. But there’s
just too much money involved — they’ll never shut it down.”




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