Ukraine has finally officially achieved visa-free travel. However, we should not consider visa-free travel as a gift. Rather, the EU took this step to repay its debt to Ukraine, which defends its eastern borders from the Russian aggressor and abolished visas for Western countries’ nationals back in 2004.
According to reports on social networks, in the first hours after the abolition of visa regime, the Vilnius Airport welcomed Ukrainians with a large banner: “You did it! Welcome!” President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko trolled the Kremlin while speaking at a celebration of visa-free travel in Kyiv by reciting the words of Mikhail Lermontov: “Farewell, farewell, unwashed Russia, / The land of slaves, the land of lords, / And you, blue uniforms of gendarmes, / And you, obedient to them folks.” The public happily supported the president quoting these lines of the Russian poet. However, have the Ukrainians really broken away from Russia as cleanly as we would like it?
Visa-free travel, just like our movement towards Europe in general, was bought at a high price by Ukraine. Just think about it: four soldiers died just as the countdown to midnight of June 10 started, and their deaths are clear evidence that the hard-won abolition of visa controls with Europe is bathed in tears of mothers and washed in the blood of Ukrainian boys in uniform. Moreover, as noted by historian and journalist Rostyslav Martyniuk on Facebook, our path to visa-free travel began long before the Euromaidan. “In the times of Ivan Mazepa, Ukrainian goods had sea ports of Riga and Koenigsberg as their outlets. The borders were there, but our corn, our nitrates, our vegetables came to Europe with the minimum duties charged, and the Cossack travelers enjoyed free visa regime. After 1782, even members of the Cossack estate lost their free visa regime rights. Their descendants got it restored only now, together with descendants of common folk,” Martyniuk wrote.
The border with Europe emerged with the arrival of Russian occupation back in the 18th century, while the Soviet times witnessed such a designation appearing as “lived outside the passport-furnished localities.” That is, the occupying government effectively banned Ukrainians from moving freely within their own country.
With the opening of borders between Ukraine and the EU, another question has arisen: what new and unexpected risks will Russians present to the European world now?
“Visa-free travel allows us to achieve a mental separation from Russia,” Doctor of Political Science, conflict resolution scholar, Professor of Shevchenko National University of Kyiv Hryhorii Perepelytsia told The Day. “As citizens of Ukraine, we already feel ourselves inside the European space. Visa-free travel proves that Europe trusts citizens of this country that is recognized as a European one and Ukrainians are recognized as a European people. Unfortunately, we are still bound to Russia by business dealings, economic and family links. To a large extent, the Soviet consciousness will still remain, but the younger generation has a good chance to get rid of or fail to acquire such consciousness as dominates in the occupied Crimea and portions of the Donbas. Those famous persons who demonstrate their loyalty or affiliation to the so-called ‘Russian World’ simply will not stay public authorities. Unfortunately, we have post-Soviet colonial elite who still think in terms of the interests of the ‘mother country.’ Therefore, visa-free travel offers us an opportunity to create young European elite.”
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day
“The next step Ukraine should take following the abolition of visas to the EU is to introduce visas with Russia,” Perepelytsia continued. “I talked about this even back when the government strongly opposed the visa regime with Russia. When our neighbors joined the Schengen area, they accordingly introduced the visa regime with Ukraine, even though we had had visa-free travel with Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic countries before. And it was logical, since the EU demanded that these countries take measures to ensure the security of the eastern borders. Because first of all, the visa regime is a security measure. The EU made a concession to us in this regard, because Ukraine still has not introduced visas with Russia. We have more than 400 kilometers of open border with Russia, which we absolutely do not control. I wonder why neither the Presidential Administration nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiate it. In addition, we must not forget that we are at war, and thousands of ‘tourists’ moved from Russia to Ukraine in 2014 who then took down Ukrainian flags, replaced them with Russian tricolors, seized government buildings. Somehow, it never occurred to our government to introduce visas for the aggressor country’s nationals then.”
Chair of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Foreign Affairs Hanna Hopko, speaking for Channel 5 TV, commented on the effectiveness of the possible introduction of the visa regime between Ukraine and Russia as follows: “I can say that Russian secret agents can get to Ukraine via Belarus as well if need arises. Therefore, I would not say that the visa regime with Russia will be a really effective step to stop infiltration, or the tool that will help us to avoid Russian secret agents crossing the border. They are so well-prepared that they can come from different directions, equipped with different passports. This is a question of efficiency and the ability of our Security Service to work in cooperation with representatives of NATO member countries and according to bilateral agreements. That is, it seems to me that here, we need to establish more effective cooperation between our intelligence services and intelligence agencies of other countries, which have databases of these Russian secret agents and saboteurs working to further the Russian subversive agenda.”
PACE Vice President and Ukrainian MP Heorhii Lohvynskyi believes otherwise. In a comment for The Day, he said: “Ultimately we have to decide, so to speak, if we are fighting with Russia or trading with it. Russia is the aggressor country, and therefore our borders with it should not be as transparent as with other countries. I believe that with the right architecture of the national defense system, the introduction of visas with Russia may benefit the national security of Ukraine. As for the Crimeans, according to the Law ‘On Upholding the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens and the Legal Regime of the Temporarily Occupied Territory,’ Ukraine does not recognize receiving a document called the passport of the Russian Federation as a legitimate act in Crimea, so they remain for us citizens of Ukraine, who can move freely. But it is clear that we should calculate all the consequences of the introduction of the visa regime with Russia in advance in order to take an informed decision in the end. For example, we have to take into account the fact that millions of Ukrainian citizens are presently staying in Russia. It is worth mentioning international experience here. For example, every citizen of Israel, when they exit to another and potentially hostile country, gets warned that their country could not guarantee their safety there. That is, a person shoulders a portion of the risks. This is why Israelis do not go to these areas. The situation with the Ukrainians staying in Russia is identical. Ukraine certainly will do everything to help every its citizen anywhere, but people should be aware that in some cases the government may prove to be powerless. Those millions of Ukrainian citizens who are staying in Russia should keep this in mind and think hard about the advisability of their continued stay there.”
Let us recall that according to a KIIS poll, 49 percent of Ukrainians believed in September 2016 that our relations with Russia had to involve closed borders, visas, and customs. However, the president’s words, including his quote from Lermontov, must be given real meaning, especially given the fact that Ukraine and Russia will always have a shared border, and therefore our break with the aggressor should, as far as possible, cover mental, business, and political dimensions.