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Moldova Woos Transdniester With Visa-Free Travel To Europe

One man says he arrived at the office at 6:30 a.m. -- several hours before it began accepting documents -- but was 24th in line.
One man says he arrived at the office at 6:30 a.m. -- several hours before it began accepting documents -- but was 24th in line.
VARNITA, Moldova -- The lines in the passport office in the eastern Moldovan town of Varnita are long. The office is stuffy and tempers are short.

Vasily, who gives only his first name, says he arrived at the office at 6:30 a.m. -- several hours before it began accepting documents -- but was 24th in line.

"We want to register," one middle-aged woman who does not give her name says. "On Friday there were 200 people here. I sat here with two children and didn't make it [to submit the documents]. Today I have been here since 7:30 a.m. and I still don't know if I'm going to make it. I was No. 86 at 7:30 and I don't know if I'll get in today or not. I'm just sitting here worrying -- my young children are home alone."

The long lines for passports here are a relatively recent phenomenon. Varnita is located near the administrative boundary with Moldova's pro-Moscow breakaway Transdniester region, and most of those queuing up here hail from the separatist enclave -- a place where not long ago, few were interested in getting Moldovan passports.

And the rush to do so now is an indication that a key part of the Moldovan government's effort to woo back the breakaway province just might be working.

A Juicy Carrot

Since the beginning of this year, nearly 8,000 Transdniester residents have crossed into the main part of Moldova to apply for Moldovan citizenship and a biometric Moldovan passport. Chisinau officials say they are getting about 2,000 new applications every month from Transdniester locals.
As of April 28, Moldovans holding the new biometric passports are allowed to travel to the 26 countries of Europe's Schengen zone without visas, one of the first and most attractive fruits of the pro-Western coalition government's dedicated European-integration policies.

In the first month, some 40,000 Moldovans traveled to the EU, about 20 percent more than during the same period last year, according to Victoria Vlad, an analyst with the Chisinau-based Expert-Grup think tank.

Moldova is expected to sign a long-negotiated Association Agreement with the EU in Brussels on June 27.

Transdniester, a narrow strip of land in eastern Moldova between Ukraine and the Dniester River, has been de facto independent since the early 1990s. It receives essential economic, political, and military support from Russia -- and de facto officials from the region have repeatedly asked Moscow to annex Transdniester. Many residents have Russian citizenship

The government in Chisinau has adopted a policy of attempting to woo Transdniester back by convincing locals there of the benefits of European integration. It has been difficult for the Moldovan government to break through the Transdniestrian administration's chokehold on information in the region with subtle arguments, but the prospect of visa-free travel to the EU is proving attractive.

"I have a Moldovan passport that is expiring soon," says a Transdniestrian student who identifies herself as Oksana. "So I'm getting a biometric one. It is good for 10 years, which is really good. I hope I'll be able to go abroad. I'm graduating soon and would like to travel to work or go on vacation."

Another applicant from Transdniester says she is planning to go to Cyprus to visit her aunt.

...But Will Transdniestrians Bite?

Chisinau is doing what it can to make the process of getting a Moldovan passport easy and attractive for residents of Transdniester, including waiving the fees for their first passport.

However, the passport office in Varnita is on the edge of town and poorly served by public transport. There are only two windows working to serve the growing lines. The situation, would-be applicants tell RFE/RL, is not better at other passport offices around the country.

Although Transdniester residents are legally allowed to apply for passports at any office throughout Moldova, some applicants said they had been directed by other offices to come to Varnita.

The Moldovan human rights ombudsman's office reports that two-thirds of complaints from Transdniester residents concern the process of obtaining identification documents.

One middle-aged woman in Tiraspol, who does not give her name, has mixed feelings about the prospects of visa-free travel to Europe.

"Visa-free travel to Europe is wonderful," she says. "For many people it will simplify things and increase their opportunities. The only thing that I wonder about is how many people will be able to take advantage of this, because travel to Europe is not cheap and takes money. People in Transdniester have middle or lower incomes and for them even to travel to the neighboring country [Ukraine] takes a lot of money."

In Bender, Transdniester's second-largest city, a man who declines to give his name is also of two minds. "My family and I haven't even been to Ukraine," he says. "I haven't been to Europe and won't be going there in the immediate future, I think. I've been to Tiraspol."

After a moment's thought, he adds: "Where would I go? Well, I'd go to Italy to take a look at the people there. I like Venice most of all, at least according to the pictures I've seen. Put it this way -- if I get the chance [to travel], then I'll think about what I might do."
Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague