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Bulgaria: Sofia Ponders Own Visa Regime After EU Decision

The euphoria is starting to wear off in Sofia after the European Union last week agreed to waive visa restrictions for Bulgarians. While many people are relieved they will soon no longer have to go through the lengthy and cumbersome procedures to travel to the EU, officials are pondering the steps they need to take to bring Bulgaria's own visa policy into line with the Union's stringent Schengen border. RFE/RL correspondent Julia Guechakov reports that one highly sensitive issue will be revising the country's current visa-free regime with Yugoslavia.

Prague, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a rare show of unanimity, Bulgarian lawmakers across the political spectrum have hailed last week's decision by EU justice and finance ministers to waive visa restrictions for Bulgarian nationals.

The decision must still be approved by the European Parliament, and it will be several months before Bulgarians can travel freely to EU countries. But the move effectively ended a national humiliation. Bulgaria, together with Romania, are the only two candidate-states whose citizens still need visas to travel to the 15-member EU.

Days after the EU decision, enthusiasm is still running high in Bulgaria. But the mood has somewhat sobered as Bulgaria faces the question of what comes next.

The government has warned more needs to be done before the visa regime is actually lifted.

On Sunday (Dec. 3), Prime Minister Ivan Kostov said that in keeping with EU requirements, Bulgaria will have to raise what he called a "high Schengen [border-control] barrier" along its own frontiers. He admitted that by turning toward Europe, Bulgaria will of necessity have to turn away from some of its other partners. That, he said, risks damaging some of Bulgaria's other foreign interests.

Bulgarian politicians now face the issue of how to avoid or at least minimize the damage.

Bulgaria has visa-free travel with seven countries that are subject to EU visa requirements: Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and Tunisia. The government commission on European integration recommended Monday that entry visas be introduced for Georgians and Tunisians.

The commission recommended no change in visa policy with Romania, which has also made some progress in convincing the EU to lift visa requirements.

Ukraine has already agreed to a readmission accord with Sofia that allows for repatriating illegal immigrants. As a result, Bulgaria is expected to offer it a less strict visa regime.

The most difficult problem will be what do with citizens of neighboring Yugoslavia and Macedonia, with which Bulgaria enjoys very close economic and cultural ties.

Krassen Stanchev, the head of the independent Institute for Market Economy, says a visa regime will be damaging to Bulgaria's trade with its Balkan partners.

"The Balkans -- both in the perception of Bulgarian businessmen and according to statistics -- are our second largest market after the European Union. And we have to remember that it (trade with the Balkans) depends to a very great extent on personal relations so that it would be much more strongly affected than the European market by the introduction of visas."

Bulgaria has delayed a decision on visa relations with Yugoslavia until after the Serbian parliamentary elections on December 23. Travel to Macedonia, which is expected to soon become an EU associate member, will remain visa-free for the time being, and the country will later be offered a readmission agreement.

Stanchev says that, because any revision of visa-free travel with Yugoslavia and Macedonia would be politically difficult, other means should be sought to comply with EU requirements. He suggests tightening regulations along Bulgaria's border with Greece -- Bulgaria's only common border with an EU country.

"The introduction of a visa regime will be a moral affront to Macedonians and Yugoslavs. I think Bulgaria's relations with those countries cannot, in principle, withstand such measures in the future."

Russia, like Ukraine, has also been offered a readmission agreement and a less strict visa regime.

But Assen Agov, the head of the parliament's foreign-relations committee, warns that Bulgaria would have to impose unconditional visas for Russians if Moscow did not sign a readmission accord with Sofia, which it so far has delayed.

Stanchev says a decision to impose visas on Russians will not have significant consequences outside of the tourist industry, which still heavily depends on its Russian clientele. The issue, however, is made more complicated because Russia is Bulgaria's main source of energy and some 18,000 Bulgarian nationals work in Russia.

There is also a delicate domestic political question involved. Any decision to introduce visas for Russians might risk upsetting, perhaps even destroying, the precarious unanimity that Bulgarian political groups have shown so far in their effort to have EU visas lifted.