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Romania: Travelers Ponder Gains, Losses From EU's Visa-Free Regime

Justice and interior ministers from the European Union agreed on 7 December to lift visa restrictions for Romanians as of 1 January. Romania -- the last of the 12 EU candidate countries to have travel restrictions lifted -- hailed the decision as an important step toward European integration. But in neighboring Bulgaria, which had its own visa restrictions lifted earlier this year, enthusiasm for the measure recently subsided due to continuing difficulties in crossing EU borders and expected losses in tourist exchanges with other Eastern European countries.

Prague, 12 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has formally agreed to lift visa requirements for Romanians starting on 1 January.

The unanimous decision by the EU justice and interior ministers means that Romanian citizens will be able to travel without a visa to the 15 states that are members of the Schengen agreement -- that is, all the EU states except Ireland and the United Kingdom, plus non-EU members Norway and Iceland.

Romanian officials say tour operators, international freight and cargo companies, insurers, and banks are best-placed to make the most of the measure. For most Romanians, who lack the funds to travel abroad, the EU decision is a moral reparation after years of what the Romanian media call "humiliating" queues outside Western embassies.

To persuade the EU to lift its visa requirements, Romania had to harmonize its legislation with the European Union, strengthen border and passport security, and sign re-admission treaties with all EU states except Britain and Portugal.

Romania's social-democratic government, led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, has hailed the EU decision as a recognition of its successful campaign over the past year to stem Romanian and illegal foreign migration to the West and to bring its laws up to EU standards.

But Romania remains one of the poorest European countries, with an average monthly income of some $100, and Bucharest had to take additional steps to reassure the EU that dropping the visas would not trigger an exodus of Romanian illegal workers to the West.

Romanian authorities decided that from 1 January, Romanians who want to travel individually to the EU will be barred from crossing the border unless they produce valid credit cards or proof of funds of up to almost $100 per day -- for journeys longer than five days, a total of almost $500 will be sufficient. Medical insurance, a return ticket if they are traveling by plane or train, or international car insurance for the duration of the trip are also mandatory.

For non-EU countries such as Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland, the requirements -- introduced earlier in December -- are similar, with the exception that the necessary sum of money is reduced by half.

Critics say, however, that enabling Romanian border officers to interrupt a person's journey will only encourage already widespread corruption.

But Romanian officials say they have taken measures to minimize corruption among border police officers. Romanian Interior Deputy Minister Alexandru Farcas told RFE/RL that only the chief officer of the border crossing can make the decision to stop a trip, and his decision can be immediately appealed, through a network of telephone hotlines.

Farcas also said a joint Romanian-EU undercover operation is underway to identify corrupt police officers: "The [Romanian] interior minister [Ioan Rus] launched an undercover plan to test the discipline and morality of the personnel at the border crossings. It is a plan which is being enforced together with authorities from neighbor states and the EU."

Since the rigorous conditions to cross the border apply only to individual travelers, tour operators that organize trips to the EU are expected to benefit most from the lifting of visa requirements.

Romania's National Association of Tour Operators (ANAT) estimates the number of Romanian tourists going abroad will grow over the next year by some 10 to 20 percent. In addition, prices for trips to the EU are now expected to drop by 20 percent, since visa charges no longer exist.

But Romania had to bring its legislation in line with that of the EU to see its visa regime lifted, including the introduction of travel restrictions for neighboring states such as Moldova and Ukraine, which are not EU candidate countries and which are among the main sources of illegal immigration, women trafficking, and drug smuggling into Western Europe.

Romania and Moldova have had what both sides call a "special relationship" ever since Moldova -- which was part of Romania before World War II -- became independent in 1991.

Until July, Moldovan nationals needed only an identification card to enter Romania. But under new regulations introduced on 1 July -- due to EU pressure -- Moldovans can only cross the Romanian border with a valid passport.

Romania and Bulgaria are the only candidate nations excluded from the first wave of EU enlargement set for 2004, and the date of their entry is still unclear. Deputy Interior Minister Farcas says Bucharest will impose visa restrictions for Moldovans only when Romania is admitted into the EU.

But Farcas told RFE/RL that Romania is already considering imposing visa restrictions for Russia and Ukraine as early as the beginning of 2002: "Negotiations have been conducted both with authorities in Kyiv and in Moscow. The measure is expected for the beginning of 2002."

A visa regime for Ukrainians, particularly, is likely to have a negative economic impact on both Romanian and Ukrainian border regions, where sizable ethnic Ukrainian and Romanian minorities live and where cross-border trade is one important source of income.

But Romania is not the only country that had to impose such restrictions on other Eastern European countries to see its own travel restrictions abolished.

The EU lifted the visa requirement for Bulgaria in April, and Sofia now is in the process of introducing travel visas for Russians and Ukrainians. But no visas were announced for neighboring Macedonia and Serbia.

Bulgarian journalist Petio Petkov says some 150,000 Russian and Ukrainian tourists vacation every summer on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. Petkov told RFE/RL that by introducing visas for Russians and Ukrainians, Bulgaria could lose a large chunk of its tourist revenue next season: "The problems will begin after several months [at the start of the next summer season], when Russian and Ukrainian tourists, who represent a large group and from whom Bulgarian tourism earns some $100 million per year, will have to produce visas upon entry to Bulgaria."

Petkov says that after the EU dropped the visa regime for Bulgaria at the beginning of this year, Sofia was swept up in a wave of euphoria similar to the feelings now being enjoyed in Bucharest.

With an average monthly income of $115, Bulgaria is also among the poorest EU candidates. Many Bulgarians took the opportunity to work illegally in neighboring EU member Greece.

Petkov says that, according to Bulgarian media, as many as 1,000 Bulgarians work illegally in Greece. Every Bulgarian who crosses into Greece must produce valid medical insurance and $15 per day, but no return ticket is required.

Thus, says Petkov, a lot depends on decisions made by Greek border guards who, sometimes on questionable grounds, refuse to let Bulgarians cross the border: "In the last several months, Greek authorities refused to let one-fifth of the Bulgarian tourists cross into Greece. [Ironically,] the big change took place after 10 April of this year [when] the visa restrictions were dropped. Before that, there were no problems at the Bulgarian-Greek border crossings."

Greece is also likely to become a destination of choice for Romanians affluent enough to afford a holiday abroad, replacing cheaper but more remote Turkey.

But with some 40 percent of its 22 million people living below the poverty line, financial restrictions imposed by Romania on those who want to travel abroad are likely to drastically limit the number of Romanian travelers to the West. Furthermore, these restrictions have already caused dissatisfaction in neighboring Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in an interview with the French newspaper "Le Figaro" on 10 December that by requesting citizens to present almost $250 at border crossings, Romanian authorities are, in effect, preventing many of the country's 1.7 million ethnic Hungarians from visiting relatives in Hungary for Christmas.

Border crossings between Romania and Hungary, Orban said, are now as deserted as they were during communist times.