Dear fellow travellers
One of the less remarked downsides of Poland entering the European Union last year was that the Poland-Ukraine border became significantly more difficult to cross for local residents - on both sides of the border. The relatively free movement of locals across the Poland-Ukraine frontier was thwarted by EU demands that the outer edge of the EU be made much more secure. Those least pleased by the new bureaucracy were the many traders and farmers in the Przemysl area of Poland whose livelihoods absolutely relied on daily cross border trade. In a series of tit for tat exchanges, as the EU made it harder for Ukrainians to enter the enlarged community, so Ukraine enforced its strict visa regime on would be visitors. There was, though, always a curious loophole that allowed a private visit visa to be issued without an official letter of invitation from a Ukrainian organisation, which at least made the whole process of securing a visa very much simpler. All that was needed was the name and address of a friendly Ukrainian to include on your visa application.
Now in a curious twist that has nothing to do with today being April Fool's Day, it is suddenly becoming easier for EU citizens to enter Ukraine. From 1 May, EU citizens will be able to visit Ukraine without having secured a visa in advance. The relaxation of the visa regime is just temporary, but hidden europe believes it might presage much easier travel to the Ukraine in the long term.
Ukraine had indicated in the middle of March it might be willing to relax its advance visa requirement for the period of the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest in Kyjiv (Kiev), provided that the EU reciprocated by enhancing its links with the newly rehabilitated CIS country. So all eyes were focused on Brussels which responded on Tuesday with the EU's wordy memorandum on strengthening economic, social and political ties with Ukraine.
Then late yesterday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko signed the decree introducing a new visa free entry regime for citizens of the 25 EU countries and Switzerland (see the Ukrainian news agency website at www.dinau.com). The new arrangements apply until 31 August 2005, so very much longer than for just the Eurovision Song Contest period that Ukraine watchers were anticipating.
Sometimes changes in visa regimes take a bit of time to work through the system. hidden europe is tempted to celebrate May Day by turning up at a really obscure border crossing on the Poland-Ukraine frontier, and testing whether it actually is possible to gain entry without a visa. But certainly, the main airports should be geared up to the new rules, thus opening up the possibility of spontaneous weekend breaks in Kyjiv or L'viv, two cities that will surely in time prove themselves to have a pulling power every bit as strong as that exerted by Krakow and Prague.