CHISINAU, Moldova – A short while ago, it was unaffordable for the family of Ecaterina Hauca, 15, from the village of Tigheci in Moldova, to visit their relatives in Italy. Now it’s just slightly less costly but much easier to go.
After Moldova was granted visa-free travel to European Union nations on April 28, Ukraine’s southwestern neighbors no longer have to go through a complicated application process or shell out a non-refundable visa fee of some 35 euros to travel to one of the bloc’s 28 nations.
Every little bit helps in a country of 3.6 million people that is the poorest in Europe, with a per capita gross domestic product of $2,229.
But the truth is that, while the ability to travel freely to Europe gives the nation a big image boost and will likely bring economic benefits over time, trips abroad are still unaffordable for many Moldovans – at least for those who haven’t joined their hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens already working abroad.
To travel to the EU without visas, Moldovans now are only required to have biometric passports. Teenager Hauca came to Chisinau on June 3 to apply to get her modern passport. She had to wait in the line on the street with at least 50 other applicants.
Moldova started issuing the biometric passports three years ago, and some 767,000 people already have them. Still, the demand for the biometric passports has increased significantly and remains strong.
Yegor Gorev, 25, an IT specialist from Chisinau, has not traveled abroad since the visa-free regime came into effect, but can’t wait to have his first trip without the stress of getting a visa.
“I would like to see everything in Europe. I’d like to begin with Greece and then revisit the Netherlands. Having a visa-free regime is definitely quite convenient, it saves time and money,” he says.
In Ukraine, a visa-free regime with the EU has been one of the major ambitions of people and politicians for many years.
Back in 2010, a poll showed 76 percent of Ukrainians wanting the visa-free regime, and in 2014 an online poll by TSN.ua had 46 percent respondents saying that they plan to travel to the EU often once the visa-free option appears.
But for Ukrainians who are eager for this day to arrive, the initial numbers from Moldova may prove sobering. In the first month of a visa-free regime, some 36,000 Moldovans went to the EU, only slightly more than in the same period a year ago, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While visa-free travel to the EU would be a nice perk for Ukraine, it is extremely important for Moldova, where a large percentage of the population works abroad.
Many labor migrants stay in the EU, with Italy being the most popular destination – especially for women, where they work as nurses or do seasonal work. Men often prefer Moscow, where they mostly work at construction sites and where there is no language barrier.
A survey conducted in 2013 showed that some 650,000 citizens of Moldova were working abroad. Some say the number is even higher. Victor Lutenco, head of the Diaspora Relations Bureau, says it is most likely that some 700,000-750,000 Moldovans work abroad.
“Most often people leave for a short time of a year or two to earn money for a one-time thing, like purchasing a house. But as they live there and get accustomed to the new environment, their initial plans often change and they stay for longer and longer,” says Lutenco.
While open borders with the EU may encourage even more labor migrants to leave the country, the government sees benefits. According to Lutenco, visa-free trips are important for Moldovans who are already abroad because they can visit their families in Moldova more often, securing their bonds to the home country.
At the same time, the government has launched a number of projects to encourage Moldovans to return. The state invests money in businesses that Moldovans start at home. The contribution depends on the amount of investment the business owner supplies.
Another reason to give incentives for Moldovan development is that some 300,000 people in Moldova have Romanian passports. Romania, an EU country, issues passports to all Moldovans who can prove that their ancestors lived on the territory of modern Moldova in 1918-1944, when it was a part of Romania. The waiting time can be up to 18 months or more.
Moldova started talks with the EU on visa-free travel in 2010.
Daniela Morari, a Moldovan Foreign Ministry employee and deputy director of the General Directorate for European Integration, played an active role.
“It was a strong political will that helped us do it. On the national level we understood that this is what we need to do,” Morari says. She said the process took much longer than a similar one for the Balkans.
“Our plan turned out to be different, more complicated. Unlike the plan for the Western Balkans, our plan included an impact study on migration security – how it will affect the EU when Moldovans start traveling there without visas,” says Morari. “It is similar to the plan Ukraine has. It took us a while to understand that we can’t change it and have to just implement it.”
Gorev said that Moldovan travelers to the EU still need to show a return ticket, an invitation from an EU citizen or hotel reservations, as well as proof of the financial ability to make the trip. It sounds a lot like the documents required by Ukrainians to get a visa to the EU, but Morari says travel is much easier now for Moldovans and the documents are not always required..
She says travelers should speak confidently at the border. “For example, if you go to a conference you have at least to be able to say what this conference is, to speak about it,” she says.
Morari says she and her colleagues are willing to share their success with their Ukrainian neighbors, but no one from the government has asked, unlike representatives of Armenia, for instance.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.