Iron Curtain Still Exists in Europe?

Reply Tue 14 Apr, 2009 09:08 am
I never thought that this issue would ever concern anybody except those for whom travelling means queuing up to get into consulates and risking visa refusals every time.

(I guess most a2k-ers are from countries, whose nationals can travel almost everywhere without having to obtain an entry visa first.)

However somebody in US government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty got interested: see the article below I have recently found on RFE/RL web site. Sounds like the principle reason for it to emerge was the recent public unrest in Moldova where many young people demanded re-unification with Romania - an act that would have made them all EU citizens at once.


April 13, 2009
The EU's Invisible 'Schengen Wall'
by Ahto Lobjakas
The "age of walls" never truly ended in Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 allowed goods and money to begin moving freely across most of the continent. People, however, were another story.

There was a brief moment when the western borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova opened up in the 1990s, allowing their citizens to freely visit Poland and other neighbors.

But these borders closed again as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and others joined the EU and had to comply in advance with the rules of the Schengen space, the visa-free zone encompassing 25 mostly Western European countries.

The countries of the South Caucasus have been even more isolated. With no land border with the EU, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were unable to enjoy even that brief window of visa-free travel in the '90s.

If the Schengen scheme fosters a sense of unity within the bloc, the feeling outside is one of painful exclusion.
But it is the Western Balkan countries, perhaps, that have had the bitterest pill to swallow. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, they enjoyed unfettered travel across the countries of Western Europe. Twenty years later, most Balkan citizens -- with the exception of Slovenes and Croats -- can no longer travel to the EU without a visa.

The EU issues hundreds of thousands of visas annually to people in the post-Communist space, many of whom are lured by the promise of economic opportunity. Even with the global economic downturn and a dwindling European job pool, visa hopefuls are likely to continue lining up for the chance to travel west.

Black-Market Visas

The attraction of the European Union is strongest in Moldova, Europe's poorest country, where remittances from migrants dwarf the government's internal revenues.

Formally, Schengen visas should cost applicants in any country no more than 60 euros. But in Moldova, where a 90-day visa should officially cost just 35 euros, EU travel documents appear to be virtually unobtainable by honest means.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service recently spoke with a one-time illegal immigrant in the EU. The woman, identified only as S.T., said she bought a visa through unofficial channels " and it came at a high price.

"I obtained my visa thanks to an acquaintance, who is now in Italy. I paid her $1,800 eight years ago," S.T. said.
Interview: Thousands of euros for a dream of working in the EU

And the price for Moldovans looking to enter the bloc has risen steeply since then, according to S.T., who says she now has Italian documents allowing her to travel freely in the EU.

“They now pay at least 4,000 euros [$5,276], and yet they're not even sure they'll make it to Italy. I paid $1,800, but now they pay 4000 euros to get there," she said.

Another Moldovan immigrant says she walked and hitchhiked for five days to reach Belgium, where she has since received legal status. If she were still at home, she estimates, a Schengen visa today would set her back at least 3,000 euros.

A Divided Europe

The Schengen space has become a powerful symbol of the long way Europe has come since the days of the Cold War. It is now possible to drive unimpeded from the easternmost points of Poland, just across the border from Ukraine or Belarus, to the Atlantic Ocean.

But if the Schengen scheme fosters a sense of unity within the bloc, the feeling outside is one of painful exclusion. The EU's "Schengen Wall" divides the continent without regard to the motives, intentions, or dreams of those outside the bloc.

The blanket relegation of everyone behind the wall to outsider status is felt particularly keenly in the Balkans, where countries have traditionally felt part of the European historical and political mainstream.

Branka Trivic, a Belgrade correspondent with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, says people in Serbia and most other Balkan countries live in what she calls a European "ghetto." Visas may be obtained without bribes, but the process is still heavily skewed against the applicant.

"It's not easy to get a visa. If you're a decent young person who just wants to travel, to see the world, it's not easy,” Trivic said. “It's humiliating most of the time, and you need a lot of paperwork. And it also happens pretty often that you get refused, that you don't get the visa, without any explanation."

Trivic says the older generation still remembers with a certain sense of loss the open borders they enjoyed as Yugoslav citizens during the communist era. But it is the young she is most concerned about.

With studies showing 70 percent of young people have never left the territory of former Yugoslavia, Trivic says the limitations on travel interfere with the goal of instilling "European values" in them.

Red Tape

Even without taking corruption into account, applying for a Schengen visa is a grueling procedure.

A 90-day visa costs the applicant 35 euros if they come from Russia, Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, or Moldova. Other nationalities typically pay 60 euros.

Conditions vary among the Schengen countries, but an applicant must usually produce fully paid travel tickets. They must also buy travel insurance for the duration of the visa, valid across the Schengen area, as well as providing for transportation costs in case of injury or death.

An applicant will need to show proof of sufficient funds -- at least 30 euros per day -- as well as confirmed hotel reservations and a letter of invitation, providing details of the relationship between the host and the guest if it is a private letter.

Further details, such as the route of the planned journey, and details of property owned, income, and employment may also be required from an applicant.

Applicants are warned a visa application could take at least two weeks to process. All countries reserve the right to reject visa applications without any explanation.

In Russia, the complex requirements and uncertainty involved are perceived as humiliating, particularly for a country which otherwise makes a point of not asking any favors from the EU. Visa-free travel has for years been at the top of Moscow's EU wish list, but is unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future.

Serbia and Macedonia are the only EU neighbors with a realistic chance of securing that privilege within a few years. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said this week that talks on scrapping visas could start this year.

Other countries, however, are likely to need great reserves of patience for years to come. Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia all view the visa issue as one of great personal and symbolic consequence. In the EU, however, the question tends to be viewed through a colder lens of pragmatic self-interest.

At an EU summit on March 19-20, prospects for visa-free travel took up a considerable amount of the leaders' time during a debate of the bloc's Eastern Partnership initiative, which is meant to offer certain travel and trade benefits to six post-Soviet countries. Most of the debate was conducted in dry and bureaucratic terms, and essentially became a spat over phrasing.

Germany led the mostly Western European skeptics, saying the EU cannot offer its Eastern neighbors more than an "improved framework for future visa policy."

Poland was the standard-bearer for the liberals, arguing the EU already has numerous caveats in place guaranteeing that the bloc's tough standards -- including border controls and re-admittance commitments -- will have to be met before visas are scrapped.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski noted that as a symbolic goal, visa-free travel would serve as a powerful incentive for governments in Eastern Europe.

For most western European countries, however, visa policy remains first and foremost a domestic issue, and not a European one. Crime, integration problems, and rampant unemployment make immigration a very unpopular topic among voters in Germany, France, and other "old" EU countries.

Politicians and the public alike in Western Europe tend to assume that when a wealthier country opens its borders to a poor neighbor, increased immigration, with all its ills, will inevitably follow.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty © 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Source: The EU's Invisible 'Schengen Wall'
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Reply Tue 14 Apr, 2009 12:04 pm

There is no Iron Curtain in Europe anymore.
You certainly would not say that USA has an iron curtain and you still have to get a visa to visit USA.
Visa Information
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) enables citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for 90 days or less by obtaining online authorization.
Currently there are 35 participating countries in the VWP: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Passport holders from Bermuda and Canada may visit without a visa.

People living behind the Iron Curtain in the Eastblock countries had to have a visa TO LEAVE the country and as a rule they did not get it.
People from the West had to have a visa to get into the Eastblock countries, sometimes they did not get them either.
Retired people could easier get a visa as the hope would be they stayed in the West and there they would get pension and medicare.

Reply Thu 16 Apr, 2009 07:47 am
saab wrote:
There is no Iron Curtain in Europe anymore.

I wish it were true. You seem to believe in what you say but the point is this invisible wall still exists, only it moved eastwards and is not that hostile now as it used to be before.

saab wrote:
You certainly would not say that USA has an iron curtain and you still have to get a visa to visit USA.

The above article was about the Schengen system in Europe, yet in USA the visa situation is even worse! If you are not from a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program and wish to travel to the US, you will have to prove to the visa officer that you have no immigrant intentions and the burden of that proof is entirely upon the applicant. In practice it means that citizens of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have to find and submit solid proofs of their income and present bank statements together with property certificates while applying for a US visa. Before their application is even considered they must undergo fingerprinting and retina-scans.

As far as visa policy is concerned, each country has its own folly. The US demands that each applicant should be personally interviewed at the consulate. It is especially difficult for those who live far from the cities where US consulates are located. The UK also demands that all those who apply for a British visa should be photographed and fingerprinted. Fortunately unlike Americans they do not repeat this humiliating procedure at the port of entry. But I was surprised to find that prospective visitors to the UK who plan a group travel must know the date and place of birth of all their companions. At least they have to answer this question in the official visa questionnaire, which also requires from the applicants to reveal the structure of their family income, expenses and savings plus share lots of personal details of their close relatives. Mainland Europe (Schengen zone) is no less demanding to the proofs of income and property. What I find ridiculous is the requirement to confirm ability to spend no less than EUR 50 for each person per day, provided that accommodation must be already pre-paid before applying for a visa. The above article mistakenly quotes EUR 30 per day, but EUR 30 would definitely be more reasonable! The existing requirement means that a travelling couple is expected to spend each day more than EUR 100 in addition to the cost of their accommodation, a lifestyle that not so many locals can afford. The overall impression, which visitors receive while dealing with the immigration authorities in EU and USA (as well as some other Western countries), is that they are regarded as undesirable and second-rate people.

Another folly, from the opposite side of "the wall": a western lecturer was expelled from Russia because he had entered on a tourist visa and the authorities assumed that lecturing contradicted the declared purpose of his visit as per the visa they had issued to him. Generally Russia leans on a tit-for-tat policy in visa restrictions but "asymmetric warfare" is widely practiced: you are not fingerprinted or required to reveal debit and credit of your bank account but need to register with the police soon after you arrive. Ukraine, on the contrary, granted EU and US nationals a visa-free entry but got nothing in return.

saab wrote:
People living behind the Iron Curtain in the Eastblock countries had to have a visa TO LEAVE the country and as a rule they did not get it.

I was too young to have first-hand experience from those times. Once I saw an old Soviet passport with an "exit visa", which looked like a simple stamp reading something like: "departure authorised before [date]". However I knew some persons who travelled outside the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There were restrictions: one could not go to a "capitalistic" country as a tourist without having first visited another member of the Eastern block. People also had to undergo interviews with an official purpose to sift out those with records of "indecent behaviour".

The majority of the people to whom I refer were university professors who had been sent on mission by their academic institutions, one was a factory engineer who had simply gone as a tourist. Their experience is another interesting story, and none of them was a die-hard communist. They all complained their trip had involved a lot of officialdom and paperwork but I cannot say that travelling from the East to the West for an average individual was absolutely impossible then (though difficult and prohibitively expensive).

Fortunately exit limitations in Eastern Europe have already become history. But it looks like the door, which used to be half-closed, is now half-open. Not a big difference for people who were earlier required to prove to their own authorities that they had legitimate reasons to leave for another country and now have to demonstrate to another country authorities that they are eligible to enter.
Reply Thu 16 Apr, 2009 08:20 am
Another peculiarity of Schengen visas for non-EU citizens: while US and UK tend to issue multi-entry visas valid for 6 or 12 months, leave to stay in EU normally allows to enter just for a few particular days. Staying longer is considered an offence.
Reply Thu 16 Apr, 2009 10:15 am
Taking your young age and lack of experience with the Iron Curtain
you still seem to know much more than I do regarding travelling to and from USA, travelling within Europe and travelling in and out of the countries when the Iron Curtain still existed, or passing one of these countries
I have experienced all of it - been there, done it.
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Reply Thu 16 Apr, 2009 10:50 am
hi , serso :

i believe the VISA business sometimes exists to kep the bureaucrats busy - keeps unemployment under control .
three years ago we went on a south-america cruise .
we are canadian citizens but we needed visas for chile and brazil : cost about $70 a person - argentinia did not require a visa .
while we were able to obtain and pay for our brazilian visas in canada , we had to pay for our chilean visas upon arrival at the airport in santiago (the customs and immigration oficer was most apologetic for the inconvenience ) .
since we stopped at several ports on our cruise , our passports had to be presented at EVERY port , where they were duly inspected and stamped - even in those countries not requiring a visa .
sure kept some people from being unemployed !

now it's fun to look at our multi-stamped passports and recall all the places we visited .

our return flight was from lisbon to toronto via newark , new jersey .
we had been assured that we would simply be switching planes at newark - no cutoms or security inspection would be required because we would not be leaving the secured area .
but this is what happened :
in newark we had to ENTER the U.S. and go through full customs and immigration inspection .
next we had to line up for a full security (wearing shoes NOT allowed ! ) and passport inspection . when we finally made it to the boarding gate , our connecting flight had left without us !
we were lucky to be able to catch that day's last flight from newark to toronto by being allowed to sit on the "emergency" flip seats usually reserved for the flight attendants - the gate agent took pity on us - but several other passengers were left stranded for the night .

so don't think of visas as a deterrence to travel or a nuisance :
issuing visas and the stamping of passports keeps many (probably tens of thousands) people employed all around the world .
what would all those people do without their jobs ?

Reply Thu 16 Apr, 2009 11:39 am
After the fall of the Wall until 1st of July 1990 there was a certain control at the East/West border in Germany. I had planned - forgotten exactly when - I was going over to the East with some German friends. I think it was sometime in May or June.
What I did not know was that Sweden still had visa for East Germans so East Germany also had visa for Swedes.
Ok I applied for a visa to go across the border for a one day trip. I did not get it!
Actually I was denied the visa after the fall of the Wall.
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