As a result, the visa-free zone will unite 24 countries with a population of about 400 million. The opening of borders will take place in two steps - on December 21 control will be cancelled on sea and land borders, and on March 30, 2008 on air borders. The embassies of the new Schengen members are promising to provide visas for all Russians wishing to visit Europe.
The Schengen zone will embrace all the countries that joined the European Union on May 1, 2004, during the biggest wave of expansion. By way of exception, Cyprus will open its borders in 2009. In 2008, Switzerland will join the Schengen zone, and in 2011, Bulgaria and Romania.
This Schengen expansion is good news for Russian travellers, who are sick and tired of endless lines for visas. Moreover, four of the new Schengen countries are Russia's next-door neighbors. In the majority of consulates, the rules for visa applications will not change. A regular visa will cost 35 Euros. Those who would like to get it quicker will have to pay 70 Euros in line with the agreement on easing visa procedures, which became valid last June.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry and ordinary Russian citizens are not happy about the complicated process of getting a visa. The list of documents required is extremely long (long-distance truck drivers have to present 21 documents to the German Embassy). Many are dissatisfied with the operation of the visa centers (organized by France, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands) - they have to pay more for visas now.
The Czech Republic and Poland have an unpleasant surprise - now their consulates require a fax to confirm payment for a hotel and a bank statement to prove that one has at least 30 Euros for every day of the trip. Moreover, it will take longer to process the visas now - up to ten days. This applies almost to all new Schengen members. It is important to bear in mind that you have to apply for a visa in the embassy of the country you want to visit or stay the longest.
It is not clear how the new rules will affect the residents of Kaliningrad. It used to be enough to buy a ticket and have a passport to travel from the enclave to mainland Russia via Luthuania. The Lithuanian authorities are promising not to make life difficult for Kaliningrad. We can only hope that the promises will be kept and its residents will not have to pay 35 Euros for crossing the border.
The Europeans themselves are not unanimous on the Schengen expansion. The pessimists are worried about the flow of illegal immigrants and drug trafficking from Eastern Europe. The optimists are happy about another step to destroy the Iron Curtain. It will affect the most the residents of Valka-Valka, a city divided by the state border between Latvia and Estonia. Since the declaration of independence by these countries, its residents had to go through border check-points every day in order to get to the office, school or the shops, or to visit their relatives and friends. Moreover, those who worked in a neighboring state had to pay about 50 Euros for a work permit. Attempts to resolve the problem have been made since 1996; a special commission was set up for this purpose. Although the rules for crossing the border were eased (Latvia abolished duties for the Estonians and increased staying on its territory up to 360 days per year), the check-point is still there. Now that Latvia and Estonia have joined the Schengen zone, it can be eliminated officially.
We can only envy the Europeans and hope that one day we will partake of this visa-free holiday.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.