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Poland: Visa-Free Travel And Return Rules Are Guidelines For Border Control

Prague, 26 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Poland intends to preserve visa-free travel with Lithuania and Ukraine, while tightening control on its border with Russia and Belarus.

Speaking yesterday in London, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said that its border policy has been shaped by neighboring countries' willingness to take back illegal migrants who were turned away. Poland borders with Russia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine in the east. "Russia and Belarus refused a no-visa system subject to the readmission principle, but Ukraine (and Lithuania) accepted it," Geremek said.

Until last year, Poland maintained an open-border system with its eastern neighbors, subject to a relatively informal requirement of presenting an invitation from a Polish resident.

Two months ago (Dec. 27), Poland enacted a law on foreigners, obliging visitors from countries, which do not have specific agreements with Poland on visa-free travel and readmission rules, to have officially sanctioned documents and sufficient funds allowing them to stay.

The law was enacted to conform with repeated demands by the European Union (EU) to tighten border controls, so as to stem the flow of drugs, weapons, and especially illegal migrants from the East.

Last month, visiting EU commissioner responsible for customs, taxation and removing trade barriers, Mario Monti, told Polish government officials that Poland must impose strict customs-and-border controls as a condition of joining the EU. This month, EU commissioner in charge of relations with the East, Hans van den Broek, told Poland to be prepared to institute visa requirements for all its eastern neighbors as a way to combat crime and illegal migration.

Poland is one of six countries which will open, next month, membership negotiations with the EU.

The new regulations immediately affected travelers from Russia and Belarus, the two neighboring countries without current readmission agreements with Poland, by making it harder for them to enter Poland. Russia and Belarus have imposed reciprocal measures on Polish visitors, after having protested the Polish moves. Russians and Belarusians have staged repeated protests at various crossing points.

Protests have also been staged by Polish inhabitants of the border regions. They have been complaining that the new rules imposed on them cause considerable financial losses.

Indeed, the regulations have effectively cut off semi-legal, cross-border trading, threatening the livelihood of thousands of people on both sides of the border. The semi-legal trading, conducted mostly at 15 privately managed bazaars throughout the country, did billions of dollars worth of business last year, accounting for close to ten percent of Poland's exports.

At the same time, however, there are signs that the new rules may boost legitimate trade, that is subject to customs and tax payment.

The Polish government has already announced that officially registered trade was up by about 30 percent in January over the previous month, and wholesale truck traffic over Poland's eastern border was, in January, up 70 percent when compared with the same time last year. To ease the immediate financial strains on ordinary people, but, also to conform with the EU demands for tighter control, Poland has announced that it would soon introduce inexpensive, multiple-entry visas for eastern, particularly Russian and Belarusian, visitors. But it has also insisted that the visa-free travel for Ukrainians and Lithuanians should be preserved for some time to come.

Geremek said in London that Poland intends to ask the European Commission to accept this in order "to help Poland and Ukraine for both political and economic reasons."