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Poland: Visa Regime Introduced For Ukrainians, Belarusians, And Kaliningraders

Poland, the largest EU candidate state, introduces visas tomorrow for its eastern neighbors -- Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. While Kaliningrad and Ukrainian residents will not be charged for their visas, the Belarusians will have to pay to receive the right to travel to Poland. The move is expected to put an end to those countries' cross-border trade with Poland.

Prague, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow (1 October), Poland introduces visas for Ukrainian and Belarusian citizens and residents of the Russian Kaliningrad exclave. The move comes as Poland prepares to enter the European Union next year, becoming part of the bloc's new eastern border.

Both Ukraine and Kaliningrad reached agreements with Poland that will allow their citizens to receive visas free of charge. But authorities in Belarus rejected a similar agreement, saying it violates Belarusian sovereignty. Oleksandr Sushko is the director of the Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Policy, a Kyiv-based think tank. Sushko welcomed his country's visa deal with Poland.

"People will have to pay nothing for a visa, according to the treaty between Poland and Ukraine, which was signed this year. Ukraine is not introducing visas for Polish citizens. Poland, in return, is introducing a payment-free visa regime for Ukrainian citizens. This compromise, a so-called 'asymmetric regime,' is being introduced for the first time and is unprecedented for Ukraine because before the agreement, all visa regimes [Ukraine had] were built on parity principles," Sushko said. He said Ukraine is negotiating similar agreements with Hungary, Slovakia, and Lithuania, which are also slated to join the EU next May.

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad accepted a similar arrangement. Aleksandr Karetskii, a spokesman for the Kaliningrad administration, told RFE/RL that the introduction of visas will cause no problems for Kaliningraders. "For the inhabitants of Kaliningrad, the visas will be free of charge. They will be issued for a year; they can be multiple[-entry] and be issued without any invitation [from someone in Poland]. It creates the most favorable conditions for [mutual] communication. I think it will not impair business activity on the border, just as it did not reduce it on the border with Lithuania after [Vilnius] introduced temporary border-crossing documents," he said.

The visa deal with Poland affects only Kaliningrad residents and does not extend to Russians living in the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Belarus has rejected the Polish offer of an "asymmetrical regime." Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh explained: "We believe that in international relations the principle of equality and reciprocity must be observed. Citizens of two sovereign states cannot be put in unequal conditions, even with such issues as visas."

Savinykh objects to Poles traveling visa-free to Belarus while Belarusians are required to obtain visas -- even if they are free of charge. Alyaksandr Sosnov is deputy director of the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies. He said the Belarusian authorities are using the sovereignty argument as a cover to further isolate Belarusian citizens from the outside world. "I think that these problems concerning visas, and especially payments for visas, are created by the Belarusian authorities," he said. "If they had tried to negotiate cheaper visas, our neighbors on the other side of the border, [the Poles,] would have supported this idea." He said exchange of information and ideas will suffer after the visas are in place.

Those likely to suffer most from the visa regime -- particularly in Belarus -- are the thousands of cross-border traders living in the border regions. Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Kaliningrad residents all used the previous visa-free regime to travel to Poland to sell goods like cigarettes, alcohol, or domestic appliances. According to the Polish Economy Ministry, cross-border trade with Belarus amounted to $700 million last year. Sosnov said the new visa regime will probably spell the end of such trade for Belarusians.

"To begin with, the number of visits [to Poland] will decrease, especially from the border regions. Right now, a great deal of people are involved in cross-border trade between Belarus and Poland, selling goods that are useful in some places [in Poland] and make their living this way. Now you will have to pay large sums of money to get a visa, and cross-border traders are a rather poor group of people. Their life is going to become complicated," Sosnov said.

Sosnov said cross-border traders make up the majority of Belarusian citizens going to Poland. He said the trade will become unprofitable because a one-time visa to Poland will cost $10, while a multiple-entry visa will cost some $50. The average pension in Belarus is $50 and many of the traders are pensioners.

Visas will also have a slowing effect on cross-border trade in Ukraine and Kaliningrad. Kyiv-based analyst Sushko said cross-border traders will need to have multiple-entry visas in order to make a profit. However, to get a multiple visa, a Ukrainian citizen will have to explain to Polish officials why he needs multiple entries. As Sushko put it, "Illegal trade and smuggling is not a good explanation."

However, Sushko said the biggest blow is psychological. He said Ukrainians feel they are being treated as outcasts by the EU, which is building high fences on its new eastern borders. "The Ukrainian mass media and public is really pained by [the introduction] of visas. It is understood as a sign that Europe is building a wall to fence itself off from Ukraine," he said. "The citizens who go to Europe are going to feel this way, no matter how liberal the visa regime is. We should bear in mind that people are used to crossing the border without visas, and the explanations about adhering to the Schengen treaty and European [legal] norms are not very convincing for ordinary citizens. People can't look favorably at this change, especially in the border regions where the links were traditionally very strong and communication was very strong."

Sosnov said the same feelings prevail in Belarus.