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Romania: Officials Introduce Passport Controls For Moldovans

Romania has announced a plan to introduce passport controls for Moldovan nationals, who currently need only an ID card to cross the border. The measure, due to go into force in three months, is part of Romania's efforts to meet EU visa conditions. But Romania's fulfillment of other conditions set by the EU is behind schedule and a swift lifting of the EU requirement for Romanian visits appears doubtful. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports.

Prague, 25 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Romanian Foreign Ministry last week (18 April) announced plans to introduce passport controls for Moldovan citizens, who currently need only identification cards to cross the border into Romania. The measure, scheduled to go into effect 1 July, is part of Romania's efforts to comply with conditions imposed by the European Union in order to lift EU visa requirements for Romanians.

Of the 12 active EU candidates, Romania is the only country whose citizens still need visas to travel to the Union. EU visa restrictions for Bulgaria -- the other candidate country previously subjected to a visa regime -- were lifted earlier this month (10 April).

The EU refused to scrap Romania's visa requirements at the same time. The European Commission says that Romania's porous eastern border with Moldova and Ukraine still makes it vulnerable to entry by illegal immigrants from former Soviet republics and Asia who are seeking to reach Western Europe. The commission wants Romania to improve its border controls, bring its own visa and asylum legislation in line with the EU's, and issue new and more secure passports.

The EU has given Romania until 30 June to meet these requirements. At that time, the Commission is due to present a final evaluation report on Romania's progress in securing its borders.

Romanian diplomats say the passport requirement for Moldova is an important first step and that it must be enforced by the 30 June deadline. Romanian diplomat Bogdan Aurescu, who recently presented the plan to Moldova's Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL that Moldovan officials showed what he called "understanding."

Aurescu said Romania must push ahead with the plan in order to fulfill EU requirements. He expressed hope Moldova will observe the deadline:

"We have not yet received an official reaction to Romania's project. [During talks in Chisinau earlier this month,] we stressed that the 1 July deadline is a condition Romania must fulfill in order to benefit from visa-free travel to the Schengen [agreement member] states. We do hope the Moldovan side will also show understanding towards observing this deadline."

But Moldovan officials say they need more time for preparations. Less than 40 percent of Moldova's population currently holds passports. Authorities say the price of a new travel document -- which ranges from $20 to $100, in a country where the average monthly salary is $30 -- has turned it into a luxury item out of reach for most Moldovans.

Romania and Moldova have had a special relationship ever since the former Soviet republic declared independence 10 years ago. Moldova was part of Romania before World War Two and some 65 percent of its 4.5 million inhabitants speak Romanian.

But in recent years, Moldova has moved politically and economically closer to Russia, while Romania has continued to pursue -- albeit with modest results -- integration into NATO and the European Union. The two countries grew even more distant earlier this year, after Moldova's pro-Russian Communists won a sweeping victory in general elections.

Moldovan officials played down the impact of the announced introduction of Romanian passport controls. Vitalie Slonovschi, a department director in Moldova's Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL that the measure was standard procedure:

"It is nothing extraordinary. People shouldn't be alarmed. Everybody has to travel with a passport. It's a method of border control -- control of people's movement -- meant to avoid unpleasant situations."

The EU wants all ex-communist candidate countries to secure their borders against illegal immigration before acceding to the Union. Hungary recently announced visa requirements for Ukraine, Russia, and Bosnia, and the Baltic states are mulling visa restrictions for their ex-Soviet neighbors.

With growing public frustration in Romania over the EU travel restrictions, the visa issue has become the subject of heated debate in recent days. Last week (19 April), President Ion Iliescu said that by imposing visa requirements, rich countries are "building barriers to defend themselves against the poor" and accused them of violating human rights.

But Romanian officials admit that the country's progress in fulfilling EU conditions has been slow. Little has been done to secure the country's eastern borders against growing illegal immigration and other kinds of cross-border criminality -- drug trafficking, car theft, and arms and cigarette smuggling. This year alone, Romanian border police have turned back some 10,000 illegal immigrants trying to reach Western Europe, and have seized more than 8,500 kilos of drugs.

Alexandru Farcas, a state secretary in Romania's Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL that the country's border with Moldova has become a regular route for smuggling illegal immigrants into Western Europe.

"Almost daily, Romanian border police are confronted with larger or smaller groups of people who attempt illegally to cross the Moldovan border into Romania, helped by professional guides. [They include] people from Afghanistan, Iran, even from some African countries."

Passport control for Moldovans will solve only part of Romania's problems. New equipment and qualified personnel are needed to guard all borders, and costs are estimated at some $600 million. The Romanian parliament is currently discussing new legislation on refugees and asylum seekers, and the country has to bring its visa regime for other countries in line with that of the EU -- which may require introducing visas for Russian and Ukrainian nationals.

In addition, Romania has to replace its own passports, dating from 1994, with new versions that are more difficult to forge. But despite the tight 30 June deadline, the Interior Ministry's Farcas believes Romania can meet most of the EU requirements in time.

"Apparently we are behind schedule in completing the [EU-imposed] program. But in fact, there are goals which we can reach before the [30 June] deadline."

The Moldovan general public say they are unhappy with the announced introduction of passport control. Many of them have relatives in Romania, and young Moldovans are increasingly choosing to work or study there, attracted both by the common language and the lack of travel restrictions. One Moldovan (unnamed) in the capital Chisinau -- recalling talk several years ago of a possible Romania-Moldova reunification -- told RFE/RL he was disappointed by the recent turn in the two countries' relations.

"What can I say? That's the situation. But I think it isn't good. From [talk of possible re-] unification, where are we now? Are we divorcing again?"

But Romanian officials say that introducing passport controls for Moldovans is an inevitable step on the country's path to eventual EU admission. At the same time, Moldova's new Communist parliament and president are seeking closer political and economic ties with Russia.