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Ukrainian contacts limited by visas

As neighboring countries with a common communist past and mutually understandable languages, Ukraine and Slovakia have naturally enjoyed close relations. So close, in fact, that today an estimated 14,000 Ukraine nationals live on Slovak soil.
Ukranians of Slovak ethnicity - who left the country after 1947 at the encouragement of Soviet communist leader Jozef Stalin to 'bring life' to decimated Ukraine villages and towns - have been resettling in Slovakia since then until the late 1990s.
Anatoly Peleš is one such case. His family returned to Slovakia in the early 1970s and has since resided in Bratislava. He says that because his mother is ethnic Ukranian, he still keeps in contact with family in her native town of Semiduby. But he adds that he doesn't stay in close contact with other Ukranians living in Slovakia.


Heroin worth 750 million Slovak crowns ($16 million) was seized at the Slovak-Ukraine border on June 13, 2000. Police have said that cross-border crime and illegal immigration justify visas for Ukrainians.
photo: TASR

As neighboring countries with a common communist past and mutually understandable languages, Ukraine and Slovakia have naturally enjoyed close relations. So close, in fact, that today an estimated 14,000 Ukraine nationals live on Slovak soil.

Ukranians of Slovak ethnicity - who left the country after 1947 at the encouragement of Soviet communist leader Jozef Stalin to 'bring life' to decimated Ukraine villages and towns - have been resettling in Slovakia since then until the late 1990s.

Anatoly Peleš is one such case. His family returned to Slovakia in the early 1970s and has since resided in Bratislava. He says that because his mother is ethnic Ukranian, he still keeps in contact with family in her native town of Semiduby. But he adds that he doesn't stay in close contact with other Ukranians living in Slovakia.

"I don't feel much like a part of the Ukrainian community even though I'm half Ukrainian," said Peleš, a system administrator in Bratislava. "I know there are many of us in Slovakia, but I don't meet with them," he added, explaining that his busy life and demanding job prevented him from socialising.

Perhaps explaining the aloofness among some in the community are the 'headaches' that ethnic Ukrainians say accompany their life in Slovakia. Complicating their lives are negative stereotypes resulting from the wide-spread presence of illegal Ukrainian workers, as well as the 'Syndicate' - an internationally infamous Ukraine mob group which, according to Slovak Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner, has infiltrated Slovakia and has connections around the world.

According to Slovak Border Police boss Miroslav Samek, keeping the mafia and illegal workers out of the country has proven to be a tall order. Although Slovakia imposed a visa restriction on Ukraine on June 28, Samek said that those who want in are still getting in.

"We have information that there are Ukrainian travel agents who have now started to organise trips to Slovakia," he said. "When they pay for the trip, they are granted a one month tourist visa which enables them to enter the country and start working instead of just travelling to the Tatras. There's no telling how many of them are here."

The illegal workers pose a problem for the country (and its 20% unemployment rate) because they work for low, below-the-table wages. One self-employed farmer in the Bratislava region who employs illegal Ukranian labourers told The Slovak Spectator: "They get paid about 30 to 40 Slovak crowns per hour ($0.60 to $0.85). Slovaks would ask twice as much."

Samek added that fighting the problem was difficult because penalties for employers who hire the Ukranian workers were insufficient; under the current law, Slovaks hiring illegal workers could not be punished.

"If it's a foreigner [who employs illegal workers] we can fine him 50,000 crowns ($1,060) and the worker gets deported and faces a three-year ban from entering the country," Samek said, noting that 120 such workers had been deported since the visas were imposed. "But beyond that, there's not much we can do."

Peleš said that Ukrainians were driven to work in Slovakia because of the severe poverty afflicting much of the country. "People in the countryside are at least able to feed themselves by growing vegetables and so on. But in towns the situation is desperate," he said. "Many of those who come to work in Slovakia are university graduates, but they still come because what they earn here in a month as labourers is maybe as much as half a year's salary back home."

Bernard Priecel, head of the Interior Ministry's Migration Office, said that despite the problems, citizens should by no means consider all Ukranians to be illegal workers and mafia members.

"Many people who have resettled in the country are extremely hard-working people," Priecel said. "They value the chance to live and work here more so than the Slovaks."

Priecel said that from 1992 to 1999, the Migration Office had organised the return of over 1,200 Ukrainians to Slovakia, most of whom now live in eastern Slovakia's Košice and Prešov regions.

Promoting culture

Since 1990, the Association of Ruthenian-Ukrainians (ZRUSR) has focused on the positive by promoting the cultural traditions of the community. "We don't distinguish between Ruthenians [an ethnic group which has inhabited eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine since the 14th century] and Ukrainians, we consider them all the same nationality," said Milan Bobák, ZRUSR's central committee vice-chair.

Bobák believes his organisation plays a vital role in that it promotes a significant minority in Slovakia. While official estimates place the combined Ukrainian and Ruthenian population in Slovakia at just over 30,000, Bobák said that the actual figure was close to 200,000. "But a majority of those who have Ukrainian or Ruthenian origins live unrecognised as such, they are just Slovak citizens," he said.

"Ukrainians are a music-loving nation, so we focus on maintaining the cultural traditions through ZRUSR," Bobák continued, adding that the association organised traditional music and folklore festivals every year and held regular Ukrainian drama contests in Prešov.

But he added that the negativity surrounding Ukraine and the resulting visa regime had complicated his organisation's efforts. "We are sorry that due to the visa regime our cultural exchange with Ukraine has become more difficult," he said wistfully. "For those who still have families in Ukraine, the mutual visits have become a very complicated matter."

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