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12 July, 2011

The Legend of Visa-Free Travel

The current government habitually reports on its successes but presents them almost exclusively as future events.

The current government habitually reports on its successes but presents them almost exclusively as future events. But what it has to show in the present time is zero, if not a negative. Officials, politicians and political analysts associated with the Party of Regions like repeating the mantra that now, unlike in the time of the Orange team’s rule, Ukraine is making real progress toward the EU. 

One of the recurring topics is the legend of visa-free travel to the EU which is supposed to become a reality in 2011 or 2012. With a look of deep significance and mystery, these people speak about intense negotiations with Brussels as they appear on all kinds of talk shows on nearly a daily basis. The only obstacle, if you believe the Party of Regions' top brass, is the Ukrainian opposition whose members travel back and forth between European capitals, urging Western politicians to put sticks in the spokes of Ukraine’s wheels and block its movement towards Europe. Were it not for these scoundrels, they imply, Ukrainians would now be free to travel to the Schengen zone.

However, not everything in this case depends on the smartness of Ukrainian diplomats and the opposition’s “intrigues.” There are objective things that Party of Regions propagandists prefer not to mention to Ukrainian society. Europe is now badly suffering from illegal migration, exacerbated by the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. This has forced the EU, and particularly Italy and France which have been hit the hardest by the migration wave, to significantly restrict freedom of movement within the Schengen zone. No less scary to Europeans than the south and east Mediterranean regions is the post-Soviet space as a potential source of illegal migration.

The Russia-Kazakhstan border alone is several thousand kilometers of steppe that is barely guarded. Kazakhstan’s south border, with Uzbekistan, is not well protected, either. Further in this direction lie Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan followed by Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. True, Russian border troops have a symbolic presence on the Panj River between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There is the entire Moscow Border Detachment stationed there, but gaping holes elsewhere remain. 

These are exploited by drug and arms traffickers and illegal migrants. In addition, a large chunk of Russia’s border is with China. Migrants who get into Russia wend their way towards its well-protected western borders with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (all EU countries and, excepting Finland, NATO members). However, there is, in essence, no such border between Russia and Ukraine. This means that millions of migrants would travel across Ukraine to reach the eastern frontiers of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, targeting the eastern part of the EU. There are well-organized gangs (some covering the entire post-Soviet space) which earn large money by transporting illegal migrants across our western border.

What Ukraine’s Border Service has in the east may be called a declaration of intent rather than a real border. When Ukrainian border guards tried to dig a ditch between the two countries several years ago in order to stop at least trucks with smuggled goods from crossing the border, the leadership of the Luhansk region raised political hell, hysterically protesting any border being set up between Ukraine and brotherly Russia. Today some these people are influential Party of Regions MPs. So the colossal hole in the east will remain under the current government unless the Party of Regions dares set up a full-fledged border there like in the west: with an exclusion zone, watchtowers, barbwire and border guards in full gear.

Any talk of a visa-free regime with the EU is wishful thinking without this kind of border in the east. There is no way Ukraine can circumvent European requirements. This issue will resurface if Ukraine’s European integration becomes a serious thing rather than just verbiage. This will be another barrier. A country which is Russia’s satellite in all respects and shows this much all the time cannot claim a place in the economic, political and spiritual Europe. 

Moreover, Russia is not going to integrate in European structures, and it is hard to say what forces will rise to power there in the next 10-20 years. Both the Russian state and Russian society are averse to being Europeanized. Two years ago, Levada Center, an authoritative Russian foundation, carried out a poll and found that 70% of Russians did not consider themselves and did not want to be Europeans. This sends a crucial message to Ukrainian politicians who have long campaigned under the slogan “To Europe together with Russia!” And even if Russia suddenly decides it wants to join the EU, would it want to have a common border with China and Central Asian countries which are extremely attractive to Muslim fundamentalists today?

Therefore, the current talk about visa-free travel between Ukraine and the EU is a remake of the infamous campaign promise about “improving your life today.” The issue has nothing to do with the opposition. But nothing will keep the Party of Regions-controlled government from producing fairytales about a visa waiver program that is just around the corner. This topic will provide it with something to boast about until 2015 when the presidential election is scheduled to be held.

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