Special Report: Ukraine ups ante in EU visa-free travel talks

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This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has made visa-free travel to Europe one of his country's top priorities. However, the EU is wary of a public opinion backlash and is linking the issue to improvements in Ukrainian democracy and the country''s judicial system.

Judging by Yanukovich's recent public statements, solving the 'visa problem' has become one of the highest priorities of Ukraine's EU agenda.

Speaking in the Ukrainian parliament on 6 September, he said visa-free travel was of equal importance to securing a free-trade agreement with the EU.

Marking the 20th anniversary of Ukraine's independence in August this year, Yanukovich wrote in a newspaper commentary that the government would do "everything" to implement a national plan for achieving visa-free travel to the European Union.

The national plan was adopted following the EU-Ukraine summit of November 2010, which set requirements that the country must satisfy to win visa-free travel to the bloc (see 'Background').

Competition with Russia?

Independence celebrations took place in August. On 16 July 1991 the parliament of the former Soviet Republic adopted the Declaration of the State Sovereignty of Ukraine. A month earlier, a similar declaration was adopted by the Russian Federation.

Russia too has embarked on a programme to achieve visa-free travel to the EU and according to observers, the two countries are competing to be first to achieve the goal.

"We hope that the European side will understand our potential and our limitations, and will help the citizens of Ukraine take advantage of their rights of freedom of movement," Yanukovich wrote.

The president also stressed that in June 2012 his country will host the Euro 2012 football championships. This, he says, will be a chance for EU citizens to see the modern Ukraine, and for Ukrainians to have more contact with tourists and football fans.

Ukraine is co-hosting the Euro 2012 cup with Poland, its biggest EU neighbour, and fans hope that travel barriers will be dropped during the championships.

With a little help from its friends

Several EU members are sympathetic to Ukraine's bid to secure visa-free travel. The Visegrad nations – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – have called on the European Commission to allow special arrangements for Ukrainians visiting their country. The four Central European countries have sponsored feasibility studies on visa facilitation for citizens of Ukraine and Moldova.

A few days ago, Slovak Foreign Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said the Visegrad countries had asked Commission President José Manuel Barroso to endorse proposals according to which Ukrainians would be allowed to visit all four countries under a simplified procedure. Slovakia has lifted visa fees for Ukrainian citizens.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, Markian Malskiy, said Kyiv was taking full advantage of Warsaw's experience in this field and that many Polish experts were helping Ukraine to meet EU requirements.

Blow from Europol

However, in May this year, Ukraine was dealt a blow by a report from Europol, the EU's criminal intelligence agency. According to the report, criminal groups in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Russia and the Western Balkans were waiting for Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU's Schengen border-free area to strengthen their foothold on European soil.

Ukrainian diplomats urged Europol to reconsider its conclusions. Aleksandr Sushko, head of the Ukrainian Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, said there was no link between the activities of criminal groups and the visa regime. Criminal activity from Turkey is on the rise despite the EU's tough visa regime with Ankara, he argued, quoted by Deutsche Welle.

According to Marta Jaroszewicz from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Polish think-tank, the hardest task for Ukraine will be to meet the EU's expectations regarding values, democracy and the rule of law. Corruption remains the main barrier to Ukraine's development and modernisation, the courts are weak and the judicial system is inefficient, she wrote in a recent study published by EURACTIV.

"For these reasons, the complete abolition of visas seems to be a long-term perspective, especially considering that many EU countries, which themselves are faced with the problem of migrants' integration, are rather sceptical about the further liberalisation of movement of people with their Eastern neighbours," Jaroszewicz wrote.

Georgi Gotev

Andreas Umland, associate professor of political science at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, told the Foreign Policy Journal: "I think that the negotiations with the EU, especially those concerning the implementation of the visa liberalisation roadmap, belong — in the eyes of many people — to the few positive aspects that are left in the policies of today's authorities."

"These negotiations still instill some hopes and offer some prospects for the future of Ukraine. If the government and the Party of Regions are unsuccessful in bringing Ukraine close to the EU, that will result in a further loss of their popularity," Umland cautioned.

Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy 'People First', a Ukrainian civil society organisation whose mission is to help build democracy in Ukraine, said: "The Ukrainian government representatives express their indignation at the fact that Spain, Portugal and Italy simplify legalisation procedures for qualified labour migrants from Ukraine. Average estimations of the number of working Ukrainians abroad vary within 2.5—3.5 million people, with over 1.5 million people living in European Union countries." 

"Ukrainian labour migrants transfer about two billion euros to Ukraine annually. However, the problem is not in the desires of the EU states to get a qualified workforce from Ukraine, but in the policies of Ukrainian governments, which cannot realise high standards of life in Ukraine.  Precisely this makes the most active and qualified Ukrainians look for self-realization abroad," the organisation  said.  

"In our opinion, a more moderate and gentle approach of the EU on [the] visa regime would be important for Kyiv. The faster young and active Ukrainians see European democracy in practice, the faster they will realise it in Ukraine and the more efficient EU-Ukraine cooperation will be," it argued.

During an annual summit in Brussels in November 2010, the European Union spelt out requirements for Ukraine to win visa-free travel to the bloc, but said any further progress would depend on democratic reforms and improvements in human rights.

Accordingly, Brussels and Kyiv agreed on a plan that requires Ukraine to improve security, border management and other policies, while giving no timetable as to when visa requirements might be lifted.

Diplomats recently told EURACTIV that Ukraine's visa liberalisation process would be "different" from the one recently agreed with Western Balkan countries. The visa requirement could effectively be lifted but only in the long term, officials said.

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