Wednesday

24th May 2017

EU visa waiver looms for Russia-annexed Crimeans

  • Simferopol Airport. Because of EU and US sanctions, planes can ony fly from and to Russian cities. (Photo: Dave Proffer)

"I dream of making a road trip through the EU, from the Balkans to Europe with a motorbike," said Alexander, a 30-year-old inhabitant of Simferopol, Crimea's capital city.

Alexander, a Crimean native with a Russian passport, voted for the peninsula's annexation by Russia away from Ukraine in a referendum in March 2014, the results of which have not been recognised by the EU.

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  • A Russian travel agency in Simferopol. (Photo: Loreline Merelle)

Three years later, he hopes to benefit from the visa liberalisation between Ukraine and the EU, which has been adopted by ministers on Thursday (11 May) and comes into effect in mid-June.

Alexander is one of many Crimeans looking forward to the new visa-free regime, at a time when ties between the peninsula, Ukraine and Europe have become increasingly tenuous.

The EU says that the liberalisation will apply to all Ukrainian citizens with a biometric passport and that there will be no travel ban for Crimean people.

The issue could mean another dispute between the EU and Russia, as it could push Crimeans to continue requesting Ukrainian passports, thus belying Moscow's claim that the peninsula is now part of Russia.

Not discussed

Yet, "this question has not been specifically discussed" when the EU institutions agreed on granting Ukraine a visa waiver, Sylvia-Yvonne Kaufmann told EUobserver. Kaufmann follows the file for the Socialist group in the European Parliament.

In its final report on the process, in December 2015, the European Commission has only mentioned that Crimea is a "territory not under control" and reiterated that the EU "condemns and does not recognises the illegal annexation of Crimea".

For Crimeans, however, the road to Europe is not an easy one.

As a consequence of sanctions over Crimea's annexation, flights to and from the EU and US are banned, and planes leaving Simferopol can only go to Russian cities. Crimeans must go first to Ukraine or Russia if they want to travel abroad.

To enter the EU under the new regime, Crimeans will have to be in possession of a biometric Ukrainian passport delivered by the Ukrainian migration ministry from January 2015 or later - as was requested by the EU as part of the negotiations.

So far, according to the Ukrainian ministry, some three million biometric passports have been issued. However, the number of the documents handed to Crimeans is unknown.

But since January 2015, Ukraine has delivered 47,000 passports to Ukrainians residing in Crimea, a figure which includes old-style passports, as well as the biometric type.

The path towards getting a passport is long, since Crimeans have to cross the so-called demarcation line with Ukraine, where they are checked by both Russian and Ukrainian border guards. Checks are tight and lengthy, but most of Crimean residents have no problem entering Ukraine.

According to family members who spoke under the condition of anonymity, civil servant and government officials are however denied entry to Ukraine, because they are listed on Myrorovest, a non-official Ukrainian website that tracks Crimeans working for the pro-Russian authorities.

Contacted by EUobserver, the Ukrainian authorities denied the allegations, while the collective behind Myrorovest declined to comment.

Russian passports

The visa issue also creates problems surrounding passports delivered by Russia.

Since June 2016, consulates of EU member states in Ukraine are asked by the European Commission not to recognise, "in principle," passports issued by Russia or the Crimean authorities in place since 2014.

But Russian passports were made mandatory after the peninsula was annexed. Being a Russian citizen has gradually become necessary to buy a flat or even just to get a job.

Crimeans who rescind their Ukrainian passport and keep only the new Russian one cannot, in principle, request a Schengen visa. However, there is a way to bypass the rules.

As the EU's non-recognition policy does not concern Russian passports delivered in Russia, many Crimeans go to Krasnodar, a few hours drive from Crimea, to request a passport that will indicate the Russian city as their place of residence, according to several of them, who spoke anonymously.

Asked by EUobserver, the European Commission did not comment on whether it was aware of the trick.

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EU visa waiver looms for Russia-annexed Crimeans

Visa liberalisation for Ukrainians entering the EU will also apply to inhabitants of the peninsula taken over by Moscow in 2014. But the issue poses administrative as well as political problems.

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