Ukraine hails visa-free EU travel as a historic step away from Russia
Kiev politicians debate tighter entry rules for Russians amid continuing conflict in the east
Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko and EU ambassador to Ukraine Hugues Mingarelli start a symbolic “visa-free timer” at a ceremony marking the launch of a visa-free regime with the EU in Kiev on Saturday. Photograph: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
Ukraine has hailed the launch of visa-free access to most of the European Union for its citizens as a major step away from Russia, as politicians in Kiev discuss how to tighten border controls with its huge eastern neighbour.
Ukrainian leaders called the abolition of visa restrictions a tangible result of the country’s pivot to the west following a 2014 revolution that drew fierce retaliation from Russia, which subsequently annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed about 10,000 people.
Border officials said on Monday that more than 2,000 Ukrainians had so far crossed into EU states using just a biometric passport without a visa since the new rules came into force on Saturday, and that only a handful of people had been refused entry due to previous travel violations.
Hugues Mingarelli, the head of the EU delegation in Kiev, said “we are very pleased that as many Ukrainian citizens as possible can visit EU member states. Ukrainian citizens do not represent a threat to the EU. They bring opportunities and hope for the EU.”
Ukrainians with biometric passports now have the right to travel visa-free to – but not to work in – the so-called Schengen area, which comprises 26 states stretching from Finland to Portugal but does not include Ireland or the UK.
At weekend celebrations to mark the changes, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko told a crowd in Kiev that the move “signifies our state’s final break from the Russian empire, and the Ukrainian democratic world from the authoritarian ‘Russian world’.”
Many Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the pace of reform, and accuse the billionaire Mr Poroshenko and allies of maintaining a corrupt and opaque system based on shadowy backroom deals between wealthy “oligarchs” and their cronies.
The EU and United States continue to supply vital financial and diplomatic support to Ukraine, however, and several western military powers provide training and defensive weapons for armed forces that suffer almost daily losses in the east.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the visa liberalisation would “bring down a barrier between the people of Ukraine and the people of the European Union . . . making a difference to our citizens’ everyday life.”
Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said measures were being taken to ensure people who were part of the Russian-backed separatist militia that control parts of two eastern regions were not allowed to enter the EU.
Amid growing debate on whether Ukraine should tighten entry rules for Russians, Mr Klimkin said he favoured a system under which Russian visitors would file information online about planned visits to Ukraine.
Moscow could be expected to respond in kind to any such changes, potentially causing problems for millions of Ukrainians living in Russia.