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Shadow Economy : Poles Spend Their Holidays in the Sun, Making Money : Thousands leave their city homes and head for Eastern Europe's hot border towns where they practice what used to be called black marketeering.

September 04, 1990|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZAHONY, Hungary — On his hairy, suntanned chest, just above the St. Christopher medal, Polish trader Marian Konja displays his up-market wares: three gold chains and a lone earring that dangles a Cyrillic-lettered Soviet price tag.

This leaves his hands free to show off both sides of a poor man's product: vanilla-scented auto air fresheners in the shape of oak leaves, with pictures of topless women glued to the back.

Except for the swimming trunks and several days' growth of beard, it is hard to tell that Konja is on vacation.

Like thousands of other Poles, he is spending his monthlong holiday in Eastern Europe's isolated and blistering-hot border towns, engaged in private enterprise at its most primitive level.

Shortages that abound in Romania and the Soviet Union have given rise to a form of commerce that under communism would be deplored as black marketing but in these more tolerant times is simply disdained for showcasing the flaws of the region's troubled economies.

Part-time traders like Konja come to border markets like Zahony to sell the cheap, state-subsidized goods they gather by scouring each Eastern European country for its best remaining bargains.

Baby clothes from Czechoslovakia, portable chess sets from the Soviet Union, polyester sweaters from Poland, and lampshades from Budapest are collected during dizzying sweeps from the Baltic to the Adriatic.

Neither currency nor language appears to be a problem in the multinational merchandising conducted at Zahony, where the Soviet Ukraine and Czechoslovakia meet Hungary across the grayish gurgle of the Tisza River.

"I'm a bank," explains Zigmund Miller, clad in the barest of bathing trunks and rubber thongs.

Miller sprawls in a lawn chair and quaffs a West German beer. Only the wad of Soviet rubles strapped to a calculator testifies to his temporary profession. Dollars and deutschemarks, in which he also deals, are hidden away in a plastic bag, pinned between his legs by the beer bottle.

"What's the rate?" inquires a harried Soviet housewife, making her way to the remote parking lot that is known as the Polish Market. She has just spent five hours getting through Soviet customs, managing to smuggle out a few hundred rubles.

Legally, Soviets can take out only 5 rubles--enough for a cab ride home when they return from abroad.

"A hundred fifty (rubles) per 1,000 (forints)," Miller grunts, driving away the housewife in disgust and disappointment.

The figure is a shocking reminder of the relative worthlessness of non-convertible currencies.

A Soviet ruble at the official rate in Moscow costs $1.60. Even taking the Hungarian currency at its official value of 65 to the dollar, which is also somewhat inflated, the ruble commands only about 10 cents in buying power at the border.

For people who can buy nothing at home, Zahony is, relatively speaking, a consumer paradise. Driven by desperation, they trade their smuggled rubles for what they can get.

It is difficult to tell, at this embryonic level of capitalism, who is exploiting whom.

Poles, suffering the effects of their government's "shock therapy" approach to free market economics, have seen a 40% drop in their real incomes, which were already seldom more than the equivalent of $300 per month.

"We have to work during our vacation or we don't eat. It's that simple," explains Eva, a polygraph institute worker from Lodz traveling the market route with her husband and infant daughter.

With one eye on her sleeping baby, cocooned in a nearby yellow pup tent, Eva suns herself and barters in bad Russian with Soviet browsers over the price of videocassettes, tapes and calculator watches.

At 300 forints each, or $4.62, the cassettes are a phenomenal bargain for Soviets, who must pay 30 rubles ($48) on the black market at home.

But faced with chronic food shortages, Soviet shoppers are often forced to spend precious forints on the most basic of necessities.

A Ukrainian housewife from Chop said she travels to Zahony to buy sugar and flour because even those commodities are often unavailable back home. She, her husband and a 30-year-old retarded son survive on 190 rubles per month--enough to buy only about $20 worth of goods at Zahony.

The market operates to serve the most disadvantaged of Eastern Europeans, and evidence of poverty and ignorance abound.

A drunken Romanian lobs empty beer bottles at a puppy curled in the stingy shade of a sapling.

A Polish woman and a Soviet Gypsy fall into a bilingual screaming match over the latter's claim to have been shortchanged.

"You owe me 800 forints, you crook!" shouts the hysterical Gypsy, grabbing at cash clutched firmly by the Polish trader, who slaps her for trying. A crowd draws around to watch the women hiss and hurtle insults, frightening their children into terrified wails.

Zahony is one of a dozen trading posts that have come to be known as "Comecon markets," referring to their clientele from the Soviet trade bloc.

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