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Czech Republic: Prague Postpones Introducing Visas For Romanians

The Czech Republic yesterday (Monday) postponed until next year the decision to introduce visa requirements for Romanians. The Czech government had originally proposed the measure -- which was due to come into effect next month -- in response to a sharp increase in the number of Romanian asylum-seekers. But Czech officials now say the number of Romanians seeking asylum has dropped. They say they will wait to see whether the European Union decides to its lift visa requirements for Romanians before making any changes of their own.

Prague, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech government said yesterday it has put off for another two months a measure to introduce visa requirements for Romanian citizens.

Libor Roucek, spokesman for the Czech government, said the decision -- which was due to come into force 1 November -- was postponed after the country saw a sharp drop in the number of Romanian asylum-seekers over the last two months.

Roucek said Czech authorities will also wait until the European Union decides in December whether to lift its own visa regime for Romanians as of January 2002.

Ales Pospisil, spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, says the government approved the measure following a recommendation by Foreign Minister Jan Kavan.

Pospisil told RFE/RL the number of Romanian asylum-seekers in the Czech Republic dipped dramatically due to swift action on the part of the Romanian government:

"Romania did a very good job, and all [the] measures Romania has adopted [have] proved to be very effective. For example, the number of asylum-seekers in this country has declined very considerably. The current number [for October] is 60, and if you imagine that during the summer months the number was 300 or 400 asylum-seekers, then this says quite convincingly that the decline is very sharp."

The Czech government's intention to introduce a temporary visa system for Romanians was first announced two months ago (29 August) and was meant to come into force at the beginning of this month (1 October). The government later pushed back the start date by a month due to lack of time and resources to implement the necessary measures.

The Czech Interior Ministry defended the visa proposal, citing a steep rise in the number of Romanian citizens requesting asylum. The ministry said the number of Romanian asylum-seekers was rising by 30 to 40 percent a month in the first half of this year, with more than 800 asylum requests made in June alone.

The reason for the sharp rise is largely economic. Despite showing slight economic gains this year, Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. With an average monthly salary of just $100, many Romanians are looking to emigrate -- legally or illegally -- to richer countries.

With no notable improvement in living standards in the 22-million-strong Balkan nation, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase -- who came to power at the beginning of this year -- made one of his main political goals the lifting of EU visa requirements for Romanians.

Romania, which has been unable to quell illegal migration or secure its borders, is the only one of the 12 formerly communist EU candidate-states whose citizens still need visas to travel to the EU. But after Nastase's government issued a series of measures to curb illegal migration, the EU said it was ready to consider lifting its visa requirements. The EU decision was initially scheduled for September, but was postponed until December following the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States.

After the Czech government announced its intention to introduce visas for Romanians -- a move that could endanger Bucharest's chances of having its EU visas lifted -- Nastase ordered investigations into Romanian tourism agencies suspected of smuggling people into the Czech Republic. In addition, a Romanian police liaison officer was sent to Prague and controls were tightened on Romania's western border.

Marian Radu, Romania's consul to the Czech Republic, told RFE/RL that improved coordination between various Romanian law enforcement agencies got rapid results:

"At the same time, Romanian authorities established a coordination center between different sections of the border police and the anti-organized crime service on Romania's western border, which enabled them to rapidly identify many guides and organizers of illegal emigrant groups and asylum-seekers as well as travel firms which would transport them abroad."

Radu says that of the 500 transport and tourist firms checked in western Romania, some 400 were now under investigation for suspected involvement in smuggling Romanian citizens to the Czech Republic.

He also points out that the information exchange between Romanian and Czech authorities has been improved substantially and bilateral contacts stepped up, helping coordination efforts even further.

Meanwhile, the Romanian government last week (25 October) passed an emergency measure by which nationals who want to travel abroad will be required to produce proof of medical insurance, a return ticket, and credit cards or enough hard currency to cover expenses abroad for at least five days.

Romanian emergency measures also include punishment of up to 10 years in prison for Romanians who commit crimes while abroad and the possible confiscation of offenders' passports for up to five years.

But Radu says Romanian officials could only partially implement this measure due to a lack of proper documentation on the part of the Czech law enforcement agencies:

"For a month and a half, the law was enforced only with great difficulty. Romanian police could only detain for days those persons [committing crimes in the Czech Republic] because the documents -- sent by Czech police to Romanian police with the returned citizens -- were not in accordance with what was necessary to prosecute them in Romania on the basis of the emergency measure."

However, Radu says the number of crimes committed by Romanians in the Czech Republic has dropped dramatically since Romania stepped up controls on its western border. Only 19 Romanians were arrested this month in the Czech Republic, compared to an earlier average of some 100 arrests a month.

Czech-Romanian cooperation is likely to improve further next month (13 November) when Romanian Interior Minister Ioan Rus travels to Prague, where he and his Czech counterpart, Stanislav Gross, are expected to sign a bilateral treaty on fighting organized crime, illegal immigration, and terrorism.

Czech Foreign Ministry spokesman Pospisil says the ministry will pay close attention to the EU's upcoming decision on visas for Romanians. But he expresses optimism that Romania's progress toward securing its borders will continue: "We will follow two factors. The first one is the decision the EU will make at the end of the year. And then I say that if the system recently introduced by Bucharest keeps on being as effective as it is now, then the debate over visas will become irrelevant or [even] obsolete."

Government spokesman Roucek said yesterday that Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has warned that if the number of asylum-seekers increases again, Prague will introduce visa requirements for Romanians irrespective of the EU decision.

But analysts say that if the EU decides to scrap the visa regime as of January, it is unlikely the Czech government will introduce visas for Romanians at the same time.