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Visas to Ukraine subject of controversy

Anxious both to please the EU and avoid trouble with its neighbours, the Slovak cabinet is deadlocked over whether to impose a visa regime on the Ukraine. In public speeches last week, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner argued a visa regime is essential to combat the number of illegal immigrants pouring through Slovakia towards western Europe. Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík, meanwhile, advised caution, saying such a move could lead to diplomatic trouble.
On the eve of EU accession talks at the Helsinki summit in December, some Slovak politicians now want to bring their country's visa policies more in line with those of the EU, arguing that this will help Slovakia's accession chances. The EU has strict visa regimes for 101 countries including the Russian Federation, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.


A party of 13 illegal migrants from Sri Lanka was detained by Slovak border police in the eastern town of Snina on August 5. Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner has asked for a visa regime against Ukraine to stop the tide.
photo: TASR

Anxious both to please the EU and avoid trouble with its neighbours, the Slovak cabinet is deadlocked over whether to impose a visa regime on the Ukraine. In public speeches last week, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner argued a visa regime is essential to combat the number of illegal immigrants pouring through Slovakia towards western Europe. Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík, meanwhile, advised caution, saying such a move could lead to diplomatic trouble.

On the eve of EU accession talks at the Helsinki summit in December, some Slovak politicians now want to bring their country's visa policies more in line with those of the EU, arguing that this will help Slovakia's accession chances. The EU has strict visa regimes for 101 countries including the Russian Federation, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

A source at the Delegation of the European Commission to Slovakia, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Slovakia was currently not obliged to follow EU visa policy. "This will only become a rule after entrance to the EU," the source said. "But any compatibility between the EU and Slovakia's visa policies before entrance would be welcome."

Slovak iron curtain?

Pittner, who is a member of the SDK ruling party, has urged cabinet to require visas at least of Ukrainian citizens. The porous Slovak-Ukrainian border is one of the country's most critical, because large numbers of illegal migrants, mostly from Asia, are moving through Slovakia and the Czech Republic to western European countries.

Corruption among border police helps these migrants evade capture, and a visa regime would help tighten the net, Pittner said, adding that there was no way to estimate the number of migrants passing through Slovakia illegally.

"Illegal migration is organised by international criminal gangs which also get help from corrupt Slovak policemen and municipal officials. For one illegal migrant they earn from $700 to $1,500," Pittner told the SITA news agency on August 30. "Even yesterday is too late" for a visa regime, he said, adding that he felt the end of this year would be a realistic deadline for installing a visa policy.

But Hamžík has long urged a cautious approach to the issue, telling the SITA news agency as far back as June 8 that any visa regime should be analysed, explained and discussed with both the Ukraine and the Russian Federation before it is applied so as not to strain ties.

František Šebej, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for European Integration, said that time had grown too short hesitate. "This [caution] sounds to me like nonsense," he told The Slovak Spectator on September 2. "It's just a trick from people who are afraid to make clear statements. Visas will help the Interior Ministry at least to control foreigners engaged in criminal activities in Slovakia."

For its part, the Ukraine government is opposed to such a visa regime. Currently, citizens of the Ukraine can travel to Slovakia if they possess a special 'voucher' - a modified visa which they can purchase either at a travel agency or at the border. Slovaks travelling to the Ukraine require a similar document.

Ukrainian Embassy spokesman Petro Petrisce told The Slovak Spectator that the problem at the border was one of corruption and would not be solved by visas.

"The installation of a visa regime would have a negative impact on Slovak-Ukrainian economic and cultural relations, on cross-border cooperation within the Carpathian Euro-region and also on the national communities living in our countries. The Ukrainian government does not believe a visa regime will solve the problem of illegal migration. I don't think any of the illegal migrants [captured in Slovakia] had applied for Slovak visas. This is a Europe-wide problem, and should be co-ordinated within a European framework," Petrisce said.

He added that Slovakia and Ukraine have held no official talks on the visa issue.

Ivo Samson, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), said he believed Slovakia ought to install a visa regime for Ukraine and Russia to help control organised crime and illegal migration from those countries. But he stressed that until Slovakia is sure of its EU status, it shouldn't close the door to its southeastern neighbours, who are also being considered for accession.

"Visas for Bulgaria and Romania aren't so urgent, because like Slovakia they are EU-associated countries. Slovak officials still aren't sure if Slovakia will remain in the same [EU second-tier accession] group with Bulgaria and Romania or be moved one step up. Therefore, relations with these countries should be kept open," Samson said.

Slovakia recently has itself been the subject of visa restrictions from countries that lie to the west. The United Kingdom, Finland and Norway have imposed visa regimes on Slovak citizens because Slovak Roma have been migrating westward.

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