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Ten Years After: Travel To West Still Difficult

By Ranji Sinha

For many people in the Eastern bloc, the fall of communism in 1989 fueled the hope that travel to the West would be easier. Ten years later, most people are free to leave their countries. But correspondent Ranji Sinha reports that now, other barriers are preventing travel to the West -- this time erected by Western governments.

Prague, 26 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Some Central and East Europeans, as well as people from the nations of the former Soviet Union, face significant visa restrictions simply to visit friends or relatives or take a vacation in Western Europe. Completing lengthy paperwork, including declaring personal finances, is just one of the hurdles. Being forced to come only on an organized tour or by personal invitation are others.

For instance, Russians who want to travel to Italy usually must travel with an agency or organized tour. They need a formal letter from the agency certifying that they have health insurance and travel insurance. The address of the hotel and the length of the stay must be given.

Traveling independently is even more difficult, requiring a notarized and signed invitation from someone in Italy. And in both cases a tourist needs to hand over bank statements and a letter from an employer proving employment.

The requirements are even tougher for those aiming to live in Western Europe. Marina Chearkassova, who is Russian, tells RFE/RL it took her six months to get a resident's visa for France. Even after she had moved to Paris, she had to spend days waiting in lines and filling out forms.

How has it happened that the barriers to movement are now raised more in the West than in the East? Ten years ago, when the Iron Curtain began to fall, Western governments feared that millions of people would pour westward to seek better economic conditions. Newspapers scared their Western readers with tales of Easterners who would drive to Western Europe, offering to work for low wages or under the table, or selling cheap produce from the backs of their trucks. But that expected mass migration never took place -- perhaps in part because of the restrictive visa regimes imposed.

Frank Lasko, research director at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Vienna spoke with RFE/RL about the thinking behind the restrictions. He says states have an interest in preventing illegal immigration.

"The purpose is not to restrict bona-fide travelers or tourists. And I think most countries are happy to have those people but they are aware that many people will seek legal means to enter a country and then will not return to their home country, and so restrictions offer a way in which states can try to control or prevent that from happening."

Each West European country has traditionally run its own visa regime, but the European Union is increasingly implementing a common regime. An agreement for visa-free travel, known as the Schengen agreement, includes most but not all EU countries and a few non-EU members. The agreement provides for a lifting of passport controls between member countries by 2004.

As part of its move to a common visa regime, the EU has begun to differentiate among EU candidate countries in Central and East Europe. According to the IOM, citizens of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Estonia no longer need visas to enter any EU country. That is a recognition of the political, economic and social progress made by these front-running candidates.

Other countries in the region, however, have been relegated a second tier, in which visas are still required. Among these are Romania and Bulgaria, which have weaker economies.

A joint panel of parliamentarians from the EU, Bulgaria and Romania last month lobbied the European Executive Commission to remove those visa restrictions, saying the laws reflect bias against Bulgarian and Romanian citizens.

The new EU visa regime has the potential to disrupt the patterns of movement and trade established over four decades of communist rule in the East. For instance, when Poland joins the EU, it will become an outer border of the union, responsible for applying Schengen restrictions to Ukrainians, Russians and other easterners. That will interfere with the flourishing cross-border trade Poland carries on with Ukraine.

In the case of Hungary, EU visa requirements could cut off Ukrainians living near the border from their jobs in Hungary. And in reverse, ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries would need visas to enter Hungary. This month, Hungary instituted visa requirements for Azerbaijan, Armenia and Tajikistan. A Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman (Gabor Horvath) said the move reflects efforts to bring its visa policy in line with the EU.

Thus, when it comes to freedom of travel, the wall between East and West would simply move eastward with EU expansion. Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russia will likely remain subject to heavy visa restrictions.

In certain cases, where EU member states feel their national interests are threatened, they can also act alone in imposing additional restrictions. Tension arose last year between Italy and Germany over an influx of Kurdish refugees into Italy. Italy saw them as refugees from fighting in Turkey. But Germany has a sizable Kurdish population, and was worried that many of the Kurds would cross internal EU borders to work illegally in Germany. This led Germany to consider imposing temporary visa restrictions on people traveling from Italy.

Norway and Finland recently imposed their own visa restrictions on Slovakia after they experienced an influx of Slovak Roma. The two countries lifted the restrictions earlier this month.

Although new restrictions are proliferating, a migration specialist at London's University College believes that some of them will be relaxed over time. Professor John Salt spoke with RFE/RL:

"Freedom of movement within an expanding Europe, I suppose is the goal at the moment but, inevitably, as the situation settles down in the countries of Eastern Europe and the western part of the CIS, I am sure the restrictions will become fewer and fewer."

As economic incentives to emigrate from the East decline, Western restrictions on travel are also likely to ease. That will happen only when economic and social conditions in the East improve.