Bear with me here as I take a break from the usual cavalcade of nonsense. This is probably the single most important issue facing young Ukrainians today. A new Iron Curtain is being erected in Europe and you can place the steaming, glistening heap of shame on the doorstep of a cowardly European Union.
On June 12th 1987 Ronald Regan bellowed to the world that the Soviet Union should tear down the wall between communist East and whatever West. The commies complied, and hopes of an open, free and prosperous Europe seemed to be the coming attraction. But as the EU expands a new curtain has gone up thus denying Ukrainians any chance at these promised liberties.
Between 2004 and 2007 the European Union experienced its largest expansion since its creation. Former communist satellites like Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia and Bulgaria were whispered the secret password thus gaining access to the tree house. They promptly saw a general increase in standard of living and economic opportunities. Hooray!
What often isn’t mentioned is what happens to those countries who suddenly find themselves on the outside of the EU looking in. For years Ukrainians could move with relative ease between the borders of their former communist commrades. Ukrainians who once took summer vacations in Prague, went skiing in Romania and hit the beaches of Slovenia now find these doors slammed in their faces thanks cost-prohibitive visas and a plethora of other humiliating requirements. (In all fairness, Poland fought the EU over said requirements and Croatia has expanded the size of their bureaucratic hoops during certain months.)
Today Ukrainians only have handful of options for international travel… and they’re not pretty.
Russia, Belarus and Moldova are about the only places they have left for vacations. I’ve never been to a Russian beach, but I can’t imagine it being all that awesome. I
think folks here agree too. In my experience the shrinking window of international mobility is probably the number two complaint (behind joblessness) amongst the young Ukrainians I’ve met.
My friend Nathan (name changed for privacy), a 20-year-old student here in Lviv, is set to embark on a work-study programme in Belgium this summer. In order to get the proper documents for this trip he must travel to the French embassy in Kyiv, [20 hr train ride to-and-fro] purchase a visa and make a declaration (in Russian….ugh) that he is being truthful about his trip. He must also provide blood work and proof that he has NO relatives where he is visiting. The rationale for this being; he’d be more likely to stay if he had family to shelter him.
Upon his return in a couple months he must then report back to the embassy and provide proof (usually pictures) that he did in fact work/study. The whole rigamorole costs close to $100US. And that’s just to ATTEMPT to get permission to go. He could still be rejected — with no refund. This $100 equates to roughly one half of the average monthly wage here. As a student Nathan only makes $0.70 an hour. So essentially he worked 143 hours just to get the right to ask for permission to go to a country that is expensive even by EU standards. As a point of reference, this would be like spending $1,650 just to ask for permission to go shopping in Buffalo.
Really? Doesn’t this all sound like something one would have to endure during communist times? Isn’t this really just a new Iron Curtain erected by the EU? I know young Ukrainians feel betrayed by these restrictions.
Anyway…In hopes of easing these visa restrictions Ukraine reached out to her former neighbors by lifting their own visa restrictions in 2007. Today no visa is needed for any EU or N.American visitor to Ukraine. If you care to visit, you’ll have 90 days to explore cities from Yalta to Kyiv and Lviv to Donetsk. This conciliation comes with a heavy political price. Russia sees Ukraine as part of its natural sphere of influence, and tends to get cranky whenever Ukraine reaches west. A popular Russian punishment is turning off the gas.
So far, Europe has barely budged in their stance that Ukrainians be allowed more free access to EU member countries. Why would they? They already have Poles, Romanians et al to pick strawberries in the summer and they don’t want to rile Russia by helping Ukrainians. After all the EU needs Russian gas much more than Nathan’s $0.70 an hour purchasing power.
My concern is that there are only so many freezing natural gasless winters Ukrainians can endure before they say ‘screw it,’ close the border with Europe and the ‘west’, get a Russian passport and book a flight for scenic Yakutsk. Frozen T-shirt contest anyone?
Okay… the headline was a bit misleading. But I did learn from the best.