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Celebrations and Shrugs as EU Visa Wall Falls for Ukrainians

Some hail cheaper, easier travel and a symbolic turn to Europe, but for others it’s a complication.

12 July 2017

A short line of cars waits at the Shehyni (Ukraine)-Medyka (Poland) checkpoint in the wee hours of 11 June. On the Ukrainian side, impatient drivers honk their horns at delays or suspected line-jumpers. Most of the license plates are from the Lviv region, whose residents often go to Poland to shop or work.


It’s the first hours of freedom for Ukrainians from the requirement to have a visa to visit the European Union. Under the new rules, Ukrainians can stay in the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone for 90 days without a visa. Many consider it a milestone on Ukraine’s journey to full EU integration even as the country continues its bloody struggle in the east to disentangle itself from Russia.


But here at the checkpoint, you might not know – many did not – that a watershed moment had arrived.


The pedestrian crossing is empty and quiet, although earlier in the day it was lively, full of mostly elderly people from the nearby Mostyska district waiting to get into Poland. As border residents, they enjoy more liberal permission to go back and forth, and young and old are notorious for selling contraband cigarettes and alcohol on the Polish side. These “Mostyska Smugglers,” who return home with overstuffed bags from Polish supermarkets, are regularly lampooned by the Ukrainian band Kurwa Matj, which equates to something like “son of a bitch” and is a project of Lviv stand-up comedians Victor Rozovia and Slavka Antipov.


Image from the Shehyni-Medyka border


“I drive anything you want across the border: cigarettes, coats, vodka, packs of pasta. Order anything you want, no problem is my answer,” the duet raps, looking like low-rent gangsters.


Smuggling is a common way of earning money in Mostyska, where few jobs are on offer.


“I stand here every two weeks or so,” says a woman in her 40s selling vodka at a bus stop near the Polish border, “I don’t have time to do it more often. I do it when I come to shop here. It’s not my regular way of earning money.”


The woman nods at the older women and men selling vodka and cigarettes nearby and says they come more often, to supplement their meager pensions. The bigger money, the woman says, comes from smuggling by car, and that’s how locals could build their houses and buy new cars, most of them registered in Poland thanks to various schemes.


“I’m lucky to have work in town. But of course every family in Mostyska has someone working in Poland,” says the woman, who declined to give her name.


Cars queueing at the border crossing


Indeed Mostyska, a city of 11,000, looks well-off. It has sturdy houses, tidy streets, and stores with goods from Europe, unlike similar-size eastern towns, bordering Russia, which look devastated from lack of financing. Here Poland is the main destination for labor migrants, with “legal work in Poland” notices posted in the supermarket, at bus stations, on telephone poles, and elsewhere.


Less Than Enthusiastic


Many locals, then, shrug off the new visa-free rules or even criticize them, noting that border guards will now be allowed to ask for travel documents, such as evidence of hotel reservations and proof of sufficient funds for the journey.


"For us visa-free is not an achievement,” the smuggler-woman says. “Not on such conditions. [That would be something else] if we could go across the border just showing our passport without any questions like they do in Poland or Austria or somewhere. I don’t know who they lifted the visa rules for.”


The Polish-Ukrainian border


A mid-June poll by the reformist Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv showed anemic support for dropping visa requirements to travel to the EU. About 39 percent of respondents, chosen from throughout Ukraine except for Crimea and occupied territory in Donbass, said the visa-free regime was very or somewhat important to them, while nearly 57 percent thought it less or not at all important.


“It’s not an advantage for us,” says a young man from Mostyska who asked that his name not be used and who, like many locals, has a work visa for Poland. “I’m working there, not going on holidays. Everyone works there. The authorities did it for themselves, so they wouldn’t have to stand in line for visas and spend money.”


Another man, in his 40s, clearly speaks for others in the line at the crossing – some of whom had not yet learned of the lifting of visa requirements – when he frets that the new rules might be more onerous for border “regulars” like him. 


“A visa is better than taking a bag of documents every time you need to cross the border. With a visa you do it only once – in the visa center.”


In the first month under the new rules, over 95,000 Ukrainians traveled to EU without visas. Only 50 of them were denied entry into the union.  


Among the first Ukrainians to cross without a visa were 19-year-old Illya Ilchuk and his father, Anatoliy, both from Kyiv.


The two men had been at the 2013-2014 protests in Kyiv that eventually ushered in a pro-EU government, where Illya was wounded by a grenade. He received medical treatment in Poland, where the two are headed now to buy hubcaps for his car, which they say are too expensive in Ukraine. They keep their car parked and registered on the other side of the border, where Anatoliy often travels.


The Shehyni-Medyka border crossing


The older man, who calls himself a nationalist and patriot, says much has changed since the protests but complains that President Petro Poroshenko, who took office in 2014 and owns a huge candy manufacturer, is not the person to rein in Ukraine’s fiercely competing factions.


“I'm satisfied. Now we need to advance the nationalist movement and bring order to our country. Because as long as a salesman is in power, there will be no order,” Anatoliy says.


“My father’s right, but I personally don’t see many changes,” Illya says. “Everything’s like it used to be, they just threw us some candy.”


Amid all the skeptics, there were some optimists in line too.


“I’ve been waiting for visa-free travel to Poland,” says Natalia, a resident of Lviv sitting in her car waiting to cross. She says she was among the first to get a biometric passport, in 2015, and that her visa had expired. “Today’s a very big day for me. It’s a step forward. It’s the government’s work, the president’s and Ukrainian people who pushed for European integration. And I like it. If we keep going like this, we’ll get where we want to be.”


No Way Back?


The first visa-free train arrived at Przemysl, in eastern Poland, greeted by Polish officials, the Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, Andriy Deschytsa, and journalists. Ordinary travelers had made the trip along with 40 Ukrainian activists, experts, writers, and journalists.


Passengers disembarking a train arriving in Poland from Ukraine


Speaking to a gaggle of reporters at the station, passenger Alexander Sushko, director of Ukraine’s International Renaissance Foundation, likened the lifting of visa requirements to “the fall of a type of Berlin Wall for Ukrainian citizens.”


Options for cheap travel, the most concrete benefit of a more open Europe for most people, are multiplying.


The Kyiv-Przemysl line, which opened in December, is Ukraine’s first high-speed rail connection with Europe. More destinations are expected to follow this summer, including the Polish cities of Chelm, Wroclaw, and Krakow. The Ukrainian state railway company says it is working on establishing links with other European cities, including Paris.


Among the less visible benefits of the visa-free regime is progress in the national fight against corruption. Although the crusade started after the 2014 ouster of disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych and is far from finished, the European Commission wanted Ukraine to meet several benchmarks before doing away with visa requirements. The government has established the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, a specialized anti-corruption prosecution office, and a National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption. A key reform was the establishment of an online database of officials’ asset declarations, which members of parliament strenuously opposed.


To help cement those reforms and others – including checks on sudden, sharp rises in immigration, as happened in the first months after Serbia was freed of the EU visa requirement – Brussels has reserved the right to re-impose a visa regime with Ukraine in the case of backsliding. 


President Poroshenko is the third consecutive holder of that office who vowed to fight to have the visa requirement lifted, but he is the first to get it done. To celebrate, he organized a two-day concert in Kyiv’s European Square.


“Finally, we can say, ‘Now we launch the countdown on irreversible change!’ ” the president told the crowd from the concert stage as he started a timer counting down to visa freedom the day before the restrictions were lifted. The next day, Poroshenko announced from the same stage that a new “historical period” had begun for Ukraine.


“Farewell, unwashed Russia,” he said, quoting a verse by Mikhail Lermontov (a Russian Romantic writer and painter), and "Upon us, my brothers, fate has smiled,” paraphrasing Ukraine’s national anthem.


Ukraine’s farewell to Russia could include the imposition of visa requirements for Russians visiting Ukraine, as proposed by some lawmakers and other officials. Citizens of each country used to be able to cross the border with only internal passports, but that was before Russia seized Crimea and began feeding a secessionist war in eastern Ukraine. Now an international passport is required to get across the border. Half of Ukrainians oppose instituting a visa regime with Russia, where they have relatives, according to sociologists with the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, which conducted a poll on the proposal.


The upbeat celebration was dampened momentarily by a remembrance of those who have died in the war and in the 2013-2014 protests in Kyiv against the former government’s rejection of closer ties to the EU under pressure from Russia.


“The only thing that frustrates me is the ultra-high price, the bloody bill, that the Kremlin gave Ukrainians for our natural right to shape our own life,” Poroshenko said.


Among those listening in the square were some wearing T-shirts in the gold and blue of the EU flag, waving EU and Ukrainian flags. Journalists from the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported they were regional and city government workers, bused to the event, and students of Kyiv universities who were cajoled into attending. The Kyiv city government denied the report.


But with the war still raging, some said it was no time to celebrate, and they derided the bombast of the occasion as “Soviet.” 


“I don’t want to live in Soviet Ukraine. I know very well the price we have paid and continue to pay for it. It’s too early, too early to celebrate,” reads part of a popular Facebook post by Olga Reshetylova, a former member of the Povernys Zhyvym (Return Alive) army volunteer group and now a coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights.


Sergiy Sidorenko, editor in chief of the European Pravda news and analysis website, has long been an influential cheerleader for visa-free travel. “I’m feeling overwhelmed and can’t help sharing my feelings. And I think I have every right,” he wrote when the rules changed. “Sorry if I sound emotional at times, but it’s honest! Visa freedom isn’t just about crossing the border. It’s much more, and I’m glad more people agree.” 

Tatiana Kozak is a freelance journalist in Kyiv.

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