- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2004

The shadow of the old Iron Curtain grew darker for residents along the Ukraine-Slovakia border yesterday, even as millions of people elsewhere celebrated the European Union’s enlargement with 10 new nations.

Since the time of Stalin, a barbed-wire divide has run through main street in the small village of Szelmenc, trapping friends and family members on opposite sides.

But a 60-year quest by villagers to have a border crossing in the town became a lot more complicated at midnight (6 p.m. EDT yesterday) when Slovakia and nine other countries became members of the European Union.

Szelmenc exemplifies a larger issue facing Europe.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a more elusive economic divide replaced the physical separation.

The new borders exaggerate the problem as opportunities for Eastern Europe will be vastly better in those nations now in the European Union.

Millions of people throughout Europe yesterday celebrated the European Union’s expansion into a potential economic and political powerhouse of 25 nations and 450 million citizens.

But the legacy of the Soviet Union continued to affect the daily lives of the residents of Szelmenc — or Solontsi on the Ukrainian side and Velke Slemence on the Slovakian side.

“Both villages are dead-end streets,” Lajos Toth, mayor of the Slovakian side, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently.

Development has stalled on both sides, leaving the village populated by ethnic Hungarians with crumbling streets and no public lighting.

Even before yesterday if a villager in Ukraine wanted to visit a friend on the other side in Slovakia, he had to apply for a visa a couple weeks in advance, pay $35, and then travel to Cierna — a day’s journey from the village — just to get to a house he could see from his window.

The Soviet Union created the peculiar situation in 1944 to push its territory as far west as possible, said Miklos Zelei, a Hungarian author who wrote a book about Szelmenc.

Family members caught on opposite sides were not allowed to go home.

On the Ukraine side, the only public facilities are a Catholic Church and a grocery store, said its mayor, Jozsef Illar.

Moreover, officials from both sides said relationships between family members are quickly being lost. When someone dies, the casket is brought up to the fence so loved ones on the other side can say their goodbyes.

Under EU law, Slovakia had to institute visas with Ukraine, which went into effect in June of 2000.

Before that, when Ukraine had grown accustomed to an open border with Slovakia, Szelmenc had been left behind because the nearest border crossing was 30 miles away.

Since the border between the two countries is now an external border of the European Union, building a border crossing in the village is even more complicated.

EU member countries no longer have internal border checks; traveling among the countries is similar to crossing state lines in the United States.

In an age of global terrorism, free travel within the European Union makes its outside borders important to security, and therefore all border crossings along the perimeter of the union must be full-fledged, international checkpoints requiring passports — and visas from certain neighboring countries.

With some of the 15-member European Union ambivalent about yesterday’s expansion and with thwarting terrorism a top priority, the 10 new EU nations have a tightrope to walk in terms of border control.

There is a fear of being labeled as having a weak border, said Rastislav Kacer, Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States.

Slovakia has to balance its desire to help the villagers of Szelmenc without facilitating illegal immigration or undermining security, he said.

Addressing the challenges facing the newly enlarged European Union, the bloc is considering legislation that would allow Szelmenc and other border towns to have a pedestrian border crossing for local residents.

The U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus, considers the plight of the villagers a humanitarian issue.

On March 29, members of the caucus wrote a letter to the leaders of both countries to encourage a solution.

Slovakia was behind the original Iron Curtain, which separated Soviet-bloc nations such as Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia from Western Europe.

The divided village represented another aspect of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union sought further separation from its Eastern European satellites.

However, Olexander Scherba, counselor for the Ukraine Embassy, said, “Ukraine doesn’t see it as a Yalta problem. This is a reflection of the new danger facing Eastern Europe.”

The Slovak side of Szelmenc, located in one of the poorest regions of Slovakia where the average earnings are only 30 percent of the EU average, will benefit from EU funding programs. The Ukraine half of the village is expected to remain stagnant.

Mr. Kacer described the region in eastern Slovakia as appearing like the end of the world — a place where Ukraine is being left behind while Slovakia takes its place alongside its wealthier neighbors.

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