- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 17, 2004

UZHHOROD, Ukraine — The new Europe is tantalizingly close to Tamila Vasilchenko — so close she can walk through a bleak border post to sell candy on a dusty roadside in neighboring Slovakia.

Yet what soon will be the European Union’s most far-flung corner might as well be an ocean away. Ukrainians such as Mrs. Vasilchenko, 59, a retired teacher struggling to survive on a meager pension, can cross over to Slovakia a few times a month, but they can’t stay.

They’re shut behind a new Iron Curtain — a 2,400-mile economic frontier separating the former Soviet Union from the newly expanded European Union and the stability and prosperity it represents.

“Sometimes I don’t pay the electricity or water bills for months because I don’t have enough money,” Mrs. Vasilchenko said bitterly. “I have to come here to sell something in order to have a better life.”

That last resort could disappear on May 1, when Europe crowns its most significant geopolitical shift since World War II by making EU members of eight former communist countries, plus Cyprus and Malta, which were never in the Soviet orbit.

Joining the European Union on May 1 will be Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Current EU member states: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Enlargement brings the European Union right to the doorstep of the turbulent Balkans and the former Soviet Union, raising troubling security issues as the bloc rushes to tighten borders against traffickers and terrorists.

The old Iron Curtain was a Cold War border from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean consisting of minefields, attack dogs, tanks, concrete barriers and sharpshooters perched in towers. The new divide is draped with its share of barbed wire, but it’s far more high-tech — computers linked to national and Interpol databases help guards decide who comes and goes.

Both borders, however, share the same goal: To keep the Easterners in the East.

Already awash in immigrants and rising xenophobia, the European Union is determined to avert an onslaught of cheap labor as it reaches out, ever eastward, to court new corners of the Continent.

The new frontier also threatens to further isolate Russian minorities already floating in a nationality limbo.

“Nobody takes us into account. We are an empty spot,” said Vera Altonina, 63, an ethnic-Russian pensioner selling flowers on the streets of Riga, Latvia’s capital, where she lives and works without citizenship.

“During Soviet times, there were no noncitizens and citizens. We were one big country, and nobody cared whether you were Russian or Latvian,” she said. “Joining NATO and the EU was not our decision. The government never asked us. Now, we are isolated from Russia completely.”

The expansion pushes the European Union into a potentially rough neighborhood: Just over the new borders are Belarus, Croatia, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Ukraine.

Across the Baltics and in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, border controls are being tightened, not loosened.

EU headquarters in Brussels has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help the newcomer nations buy aircraft, snowmobiles, night-vision goggles, scanners and computers.

During the Cold War, the 61-mile Slovak-Ukraine border was under Moscow’s sway and few people had the means or permission to travel.

Today, the border is virtually impenetrable, patrolled by 500 highly trained Slovak guards, meticulously searching Ukrainians and their vehicles and wandering through nearby fields and forests.

Ukraine lies on the ancient Silk Road, which has become a major route for smugglers bringing heroin and illegal immigrants from Central Asia to Europe.

“Before, we were in the East. Now we’re about to switch to the other side, and we can’t take any chances,” said Deputy Col. Miron Vojtasek, Slovakia’s second-in-command for the frontier, fidgeting nervously at his desk and sighing heavily as the phone rang every few minutes.

“We’re protecting the outer border of Europe.”

The need for tight security became apparent late in March when Ukraine’s Defense Ministry disclosed that several hundred Soviet-built missiles were missing from the nation’s arsenals, raising concerns that they might reach terrorists.

In February, border guards stopped a man crossing into Hungary with nearly a pound of uranium. It was not clear whether the uranium was in natural form or had been enriched for weapons use.

Similar vigilance is evident along Poland’s long border with Russia. In the Soviet era, crossings were spaced roughly 60 miles apart. Now there are manned checkpoints every 13 miles.

Poland, which began building new stations in 1997, has 16,000 border guards and will hire 5,300 more by 2006, said Jaroslaw Zukowicz, a border-security spokesman.

In October, Poland introduced visas for Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians. Cross-border traffic and small trade initially almost stopped, but the flow of vehicles and “suitcase merchants” hawking cheap cigarettes and other goods has resumed.

In the Baltics, where the border with Russia was mostly an administrative one until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, barbed-wire fences now run through thick forests, police boats patrol borderland rivers and lakes, and modern customs offices dot main highways to Russia and Belarus.

The Kremlin is unhappy that the Baltic states, which it long viewed as its own back yard, have joined the European Union and NATO. Baltic officials have tried to assure Russia that everyone in the region will be more secure.

“The western border of Russia has never been so safe before,” declared Antanas Valionis, Lithuania’s foreign minister.

Across the ex-communist East, there are doubts about the integrity of poorly paid border guards. Gunars Dabolins, who heads Latvia’s border police, dismissed assertions that his department is rife with corrupt guards willing to wave through contraband in exchange for cash.

Even so, “we are establishing a criminal department in the border service because we realize that the pressure from [Russia and Belarus] is going to be big, and there will be attempts made by organized crime to bribe them,” Mr. Dabolins said.

There’s more to the new Iron Curtain than security issues.

The EU expansion cuts off Russia from Kaliningrad, its westernmost enclave, and risks deepening the isolation of the Russian minorities in Latvia and elsewhere.

“When I go to Russia, they tell me I’m not Russian. When I’m in Latvia, they tell me I’m not Latvian,” said Slava Vyacheslavs, 63, who left Russia on foot for Latvia at age 4 in 1944, yet hasn’t been granted citizenship.

“I get a measly little pension in Latvia, so I’ve got to stay here. So let it be Europe — maybe that will be better for me,” he said.

Russians in Kaliningrad, meanwhile, tend to view neighboring Poland, with its Western clothing, furniture, supplies and style of living, as their “America.”

In Uzhhorod, capital of Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region, which bills itself as the geographic center of Europe, Ukrainians see Slovakia as a similar Promised Land. It’s an impression that’s bound to increase after May 1.

Those fortunate enough to obtain multiple-entry visas often cross the border three or four times a day to sell whatever they can.

The gasoline trade is a vivid illustration of the widening wealth gap. Ukrainians tank up their shabby late ‘70s Lada and Volga sedans at home, drive to Slovakia where gas costs more, and siphon it out with a rubber hose for sale, leaving just enough for the 3-mile-long drive back.

Maria Dupin, 17, who studies English at college and aspires to work as a translator, says friends have left Uzhhorod and not come back. But for now, she said, she’s content to wait for Europe to come to her.

When that might happen is anyone’s guess. The European Union hasn’t even set a vague target date for Ukraine’s accession.

“I expect more opportunity in Europe,” she said. “Ukraine is not a very good country. Those who left must know it’s better to be on the other side.”

AP reporters Andrea Dudikova in Slovakia, Timothy Jacobs in Latvia and Monika Scislowska in Poland contributed to this article.

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