A strict, often brutal visa regime for Ukrainians will hardly stop criminals or potential illegal migrants from getting to the EU. Instead, it may undermine effective business, academic and cultural contacts
On 1 July 2013, the EU-Ukraine agreement on a simplified visa issuance procedure went into effect. The agreement is aimed at easing access to the EU for a number of categories of Ukrainian citizens. Even as Ukrainians welcome this undoubtedly positive step that should foster a new critically-thinking elite in Ukraine, it must also be understood that it will not ensure any pivotal changes.
Theoretically, the function of a visa policy is to filter migration flows, particularly preventing criminal and other socially dangerous elements from penetrating a specific territory and thus reducing the risk of crime and other social maladies. At the same time, the door for business, academic, cultural, humanitarian, tourist and interpersonal contact between different nations should be kept wide open. This kind of “grassroots diplomacy” should draw neighbouring nations closer together and facilitate a better mutual understanding at the level of direct contacts. However, the trend with issuing Schengen visas to Ukrainians has been quite the reverse in recent years. This overly complicated, and sometimes openly brutal, procedure is often offensive and triggers negative emotions, thus leading to the potential or covert rejection of those who, on the contrary, could be the driving force behind Ukrainian-EU mental convergence as they experience it themselves and translate it to the rest of the country’s population. From the viewpoint of Ukrainians, the visa practice as applied to them, is hypocritical: while claiming that Ukraine belongs to Europe, EU member-states continue to apply a strict visa regime against Ukrainians and set absurd requirements. In this way, there is the impression that European bureaucrats do not, in fact, want to see Ukraine truly integrate into Europe and instead, wish to use it as a buffer of sorts against Russia.
An analysis carried out by The Ukrainian Week, a poll on tyzhden.ua and observations by experts all point to the fact that many EU embassies and consulates treat Ukrainian visa applicants as second-rate people. The visa procedure is overburdened with unnecessary and absolutely ridiculous demands. To make things worse, these are treated by the local staff of foreign diplomatic missions in the worst traditions of Soviet bureaucrats. In addition to a long list of documents supposedly needed to confirm the purpose of an applicant’s trip to a country in the Schengen zone, additional paperwork must be submitted to prove the intent to return to Ukraine. The embassies themselves may not have a clue that most of these demands are absolutely misguided and fall short of the mark and that Ukrainians are forced to circumvent them through small-scale manipulations. For example, an applicant is required to have a certain sum of money on a card account, which supposedly proves that he/she can cover his/her expenses and will not beg or seek employment in Europe. However, this precautionary measure is absolutely ineffective: those who lack the required sum borrow money, put in in their account, present an bank statement to the embassy, withdraw the money and return it to the lender.
In any case, all these requirements and additional documents greatly complicate life for travellers, potentially increasing their expenses, including the corruption factor. This includes bribes given to Ukrainian government agencies for the required paperwork and payments to structures that offer the resolution of visa issues in the embassies of European countries without any personal contact but for a hefty fee.
Another component of the “special” visa regime for Ukrainians is the problems they encounter during border crossings. These often arise simply because they are Ukrainian nationals and hence require particularly close attention.
It is not impossible to understand what the Europeans are thinking: EU member-states are going through a multiculturalism crisis and struggling with high unemployment and irregular migration. So they have to at least make an example of their visa-related principles somewhere. Geopolitically, Ukraine is the best target for this purpose. It is not like Turkey the leader of which, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enjoys increasing influence in the region. It is even less similar to Russia whose ambitious president keeps a watchful eye on Europe to make sure it does not show greater preference to Kyiv than to Moscow. However, are Ukrainians really the main source of these problems? Do artificial barriers really have to be installed to limit their mobility? Even those who settle in the EU rather than visit Europe for various purposes (who are clearly the majority) integrate and adapt to the culture of their host countries much better than immigrants from many other countries. This is because Ukrainians have a largely European mentality and are not leaders in the crime statistics of European countries.
European bureaucrats need to understand that organized criminal groups and potential illegal migrant workers will be ready to overcome any obstacles without regard for time and money or will resort to corrupt shady deals to make their way to the EU. At the same time, the excesses of Schengen bureaucracy discourage the most educated section of Ukrainian society from frequent visits to Europe. Businessmen, academics, journalists and students will not be able to fully fulfil their important role in the reception of the European worldview and its popularization in Ukraine. The same applies to the image of Ukrainians in European countries – it will, as a consequence, be limited to a distorted stereotype of an illegal migrant worker.
The unjustifiably strict European visa bureaucracy blocks lifts for a nascent counter-elite in Ukraine – an alternative to today’s post-Soviet kleptocrats who will never start pro-European reforms in the country because they will thus lose the existing opportunities for their own rapid enrichment. The more Ukrainians visit EU countries and gain experience that differs from post-Soviet realities, the faster a critical social mass will form and implement real pro-European transformations in Ukraine. It is for this purpose that the intellectual iron curtain and communication barriers between educated social groups in the EU and Ukraine must be removed.
Finally, the experience of more than two post-Soviet decades shows that Ukraine, with its Soviet-era elites, can only really be reset by a new generation. More than half a century of Sovietization, which involved the erosion of the Ukrainian identity with its inherent European values (individuality, private initiative and the proprietor’s instinct), severely traumatized the mentality of entire generations. Many years of Soviet isolation from the outside world (the Iron Curtain) made Ukrainian society immobile and mentally closed. Social surveys show that even now, 77% of Ukrainians have never been abroad, while those who did leave the country mostly went to post-Soviet republics. Consequently, most citizens have a hard time comparing post-Soviet reality with the situation in Europe, which makes it difficult for them to grasp the need for change and its importance. In its turn, this minimizes social support for any reform in the country.
The more Ukrainians experience the difference in the standard of living and values between those in EU countries and on post-Soviet territory, the faster a critical mass will form that will be interested in changing the status quo and implementing pro-European reforms. The ability of the EU and the West to support the formation of a new generation of Ukrainians and increase contacts between wider groups of Ukrainian citizens and Europeans will be critical for the rate of internal transformations in Ukraine, something that Europe also needs in order to ensure stability in the region and the prospects of natural, rather than artificial, EU expansion. If Viktor Yanukovych’s regime survives beyond 2015, the regressive processes launched in the past three years may go too far. If all of Ukraine fails to become – at least mentally – part of European civilization, another Belarus will spring up next to Europe. However, it will be even more Russified in terms of both worldview and politics. For the EU, this will mean new powerful geopolitical and humanitarian challenges. The authoritarian Russian regime has long wanted to steal the integration initiative from the EU. It does not disguise its desire for opposition between the East and the West in terms of human and value-related issues.
Without an efficient mechanism for the development of the most active groups of Ukrainian society in the overall European context, their transformation into drivers of pro-European change will fail to take place. Visa-free access to Europe (not employment there!) and support for special study programmes in Europe for Ukrainian students is the biggest assistance that the EU can provide to Ukrainian society at the present stage to help it nurture a new generation that will identify itself as European rather than post-Soviet. All of this is impossible without cancelling visas for Ukrainians – not for bureaucrats but mainly for students, journalists, scholars and representatives of small and medium business. Of course, Europe can point to the problems that the current Ukrainian authorities have with fulfilling the plan for a visa liberalization policy, but EU countries should have learned by now to distinguish between the temporary authoritative regime and the pro-European majority in Ukrainian society.