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Moldova's Sorry Experience With Visa-Free EU Travel a Warning to Ukraine

© REUTERS / Mikhail PalinchakUkrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Slovak President Andrej Kiska attend a ceremony dedicated to a visa-free regime with European Union (EU) which comes into force for Ukraine, in the town of Uzhgorod, Ukraine, June 11, 2017
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Slovak President Andrej Kiska attend a ceremony dedicated to a visa-free regime with European Union (EU) which comes into force for Ukraine, in the town of Uzhgorod, Ukraine, June 11, 2017 - Sputnik International
On Sunday, Ukraine's long-awaited visa-free travel arrangement with the EU entered into force, prompting President Petro Poroshenko to harp on about Ukraine's Russia-free future. However, Ukrainian politics expert Bogdan Bezpalko says Poroshenko should have taken a look at the experience of neighboring Moldova before getting too excited.

Speaking at a special ceremony at the Ukrainian-Slovak border Sunday, President Poroshenko said that the introduction of a visa-free regime with the EU was the final lifting of a "paper curtain" separating Ukraine from Europe. It was symbolic, he said, that the visa-free regime was being enacted on the eve of June 12, a holiday commemorating Russia's independence and sovereignty.

"We [Ukraine and Russia] finally became independent from each other, including politically, economically, energetically and mentally," Poroshenko said. To drive the point home, the president made the odd, perhaps deliberately provocative choice of quoting Russian poets Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Pushkin, including a quote from the former's poem "Farewell, Unwashed Russia," and the latter's "To Chaadayev."

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Speaking to RIA Novosti, Bogdan Bezpalko, Ukrainian politics expert and deputy director of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian Studies at Moscow State University, commented that the Ukrainian president's odd choice of words, even if driven by a desire to hurt Russia, actually demonstrates just how deeply Ukraine and Russia remain linked in terms of culture, language, and mentality.

As for the visa-free regime itself, Bezpalko emphasized that it was much too early for Ukraine to celebrate.

The analyst recalled that tiny Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, has enjoyed a visa-free travel regime with EU countries since 2014, but this has not improved the political or socio-economic situation in the country in any visible way.

"Moldova has had this kind of visa-free regime for a long time, but it never did become a driver for the Moldovan economy. Moldova is more dependent on remittances from citizens working abroad than Tajikistan," Bezpalko said. Remittances, predominantly from workers in Russia, are presently estimated to account for nearly 20% of Moldova's GDP.

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In Ukraine's case, the expert suggested that Poroshenko is "playing for his audience and trying to present the visa-free agreement as his great achievement." This only makes sense, Bezpalko noted, because in over three years since stepping into office, the president had had few if any real accomplishments to boast about. The national economy is in shambles, the country faces ongoing political instability, its patron-client relationship with Brussels and Washington is threatened, and the ongoing civil war in Ukraine's southeast seems to have no end in sight.

Furthermore, with 80% of Ukrainians earning less than $5 a day, and about 1.9 million (or 9.5% of the working population) suffering unemployment, it seems doubtful that many Ukrainian nationals will be able to actually take advantage of their new-found freedom of travel to Europe.

Since June 11, Ukrainian citizens with biometric passports have been able to enter Schengen Area countries (including most of continental Europe but excluding the UK and Ireland) for a period up to 90 days during any 180-day period.

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When entering, Ukrainians may be required to produce a return ticket, proof of a hotel reservation, medical insurance and proof that they have at least 45 euros for each day they plan to spend in Schengen Area. EU states reserve the right to reinstate visa requirements in the event of any security concerns, or if Ukraine fails to cooperate in taking back illegal immigrants.

In recent weeks, some EU members have grown jittery about the prospects of a flood of Ukrainian illegal migrant workers finding ways to abuse the visa-free arrangements to come and work in their countries.

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