On June 11, 2017, visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens to EU countries finally became a reality. Ukrainians can now visit any EU member state (with the exception of the UK and Ireland) for up to ninety days within a one-hundred-eighty-day period. They are not allowed to work during these stays, and EU member states enabled themselves to apply a brake should the system be abused, for example by large numbers of asylum seekers or people working illegally.
The long-awaited introduction of visa-free travel has several practical and conceptual impacts. For the moment, the latter are the more important, as few Ukrainians have the required biometric passports and the financial means to travel.
The arrival of the visa-free regime was marked with a party and free concerts in a highly symbolic location: Independence Square in the center of Kyiv. Known in Ukrainian as Maidan, the square’s name is linked inextricably to the Euromaidan mass protests of 2013–2014. These demonstrations, directed against the corrupt regime of then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, were triggered by the president’s last-minute decision not to sign a political and economic Association Agreement with the EU.
Several thousand people celebrated in the center of Kyiv on June 11. These celebrations highlighted the first impact of the new visa-free regime: it represents an idea rather than just a legal gateway to hassle-free travel. It symbolizes that Ukraine is European.
The EU had started negotiating visa-free travel with Ukraine over fifteen years ago—the process effectively came to a halt during Yanukovych’s presidency. Since his departure, visa-free travel has been the biggest concrete incentive the EU could use in its attempt to stimulate domestic reforms through conditionality. The process was extended several times; the list of legal reforms to be undertaken was long and concrete, from border-control issues to anticorruption; and the monitoring of implementation was rigorous. There is no comparable carrot the EU can offer now short of membership, effectively making it harder to incentivize the reform process from outside.
The ongoing war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region clearly left a mark on President Petro Poroshenko’s speech on June 11. During a meeting with his Slovak counterpart Andrej Kiska at the Ukrainian-Slovak border, Poroshenko equated the introduction of visa-free travel with a final break with Moscow. Of course, it does not mean this, either from an economic or political perspective or with regard to people-to-people contacts. Many Ukrainians will continue to travel to Russia in the foreseeable future, because Ukrainians have at least as many family connections in Russia as in Western countries, and the costs involved in traveling to Russia are lower.
Moreover, the visa-free regime with the EU requires Ukrainians to acquire an international biometric passport. So far, about 3 million Ukrainians hold such passports. Ukrainian border guards expect a 30 percent increase in passenger traffic.
A survey of about 2,000 residents of Ukraine, conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Razumkov Center in the week the new regime was introduced, found that one-third of Ukraine’s population deemed the introduction of visa-free travel important for them. In particular, residents in western regions closer to the EU border appreciated the visa-free regime.
Only 9 percent of those surveyed said that they already had the required biometric passports. Most of them, a distinctly younger cohort of Ukrainians, were already foreign-passport holders who exchanged one type of passport allowing for international travel for another. By contrast, 66 percent said they had no old or new foreign-travel passport—a slightly higher percentage than in 2013. According to the survey, over 84 percent of the respondents over the age of sixty had no foreign-travel passport, and close to 80 percent of them had no intention of obtaining a passport that gives them the legal right to travel to EU member states.
The new visa regime therefore highlights and potentially increases the generational gap. For the moment, however, there is still widespread ignorance about the details of the regime: only 14 percent of the respondents said they had familiarized themselves with the content of the arrangements.
A tangible impact comes in the form of infrastructure, but even this has a symbolic dimension to it too: the number of direct trains from Kyiv to Polish towns has increased. Ukraine now has a budget airline and is beginning to be included more fully into European flight routes. At one level, these are logistical adjustments; but at another, these changes symbolize the shrinking of physical and political distances and the ultimately porous nature of the EU’s outer border.
The ability to travel to the EU without a visa has not gone unnoticed in the occupied territories in the Donbas region. Trips are already being organized from the occupied territories across the front line for people to acquire biometric Ukrainian passports. It is too early to judge how attractive this option will prove in the occupied territories, but for those who choose it, this route reinforces the notion of Ukrainian citizenship.
In the medium term, repeated travel to the EU may have socializing effects, especially on the younger generation of Ukrainians who are already measuring their expectations against the living standards and opportunities in the EU. In turn, the government would feel greater pressure to intensify domestic reforms. Last but not least, a greater number of Ukrainians traveling to the EU would bolster Europeans’ familiarity with a country still largely unknown to most EU citizens.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.