Starting June 11, Ukrainians holding biometric passports have been able to travel freely for tourism, educational, and business purposes within the EU and Schengen countries (including Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) for up to 90 days in a 180-day period.
Visa liberalization is clearly a tangible result for Ukrainians, and has raised their hopes that their expectations of a better future as an aspiring EU country might soon be fulfilled.
However the feeling of victory and joy are tempered with bitter awareness of the cost of Ukraine’s European choice. As a Swedish MEP correctly observed, “few countries today pay such a high price for its democratic aspirations”. In fact negotiations on visa liberalization started back in 2008, but after Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the negotiated EU Association Agreement in November 2013, demonstrators gathered in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) carrying Ukrainian and EU flags and chanting “Ukraine is Europe” while decrying the corruption of the Yanukovych regime. After unprecedented violence by riot police, a series of events followed including Russian efforts to destabilize many Ukrainian regions in a propaganda campaign, and eventually the annexation of Crimea and war in the east of the country. Now in exile in Russia, Yanukovych traded the European aspirations of Ukrainian citizens for Russia’s vision of the country as a zone of Kremlin influence.
The word bezviz (“without visas” in Ukrainian) has become a word with positive connotations, a symbol that achievements and a result of the fight Ukrainians are leading on the front lines of both information and physical wars. President Petro Poroshenko hailed the “fall of the paper curtain” at a gathering in Kyiv—but what has truly happened is moving the civilizational wall to the Ukraine-Russia border.
The biggest fear—and principal propaganda target—for Russia was and remains the emergence of a powerful, self-sufficient Ukrainian state imbued with European values. The success story of Ukraine-EU visa liberalization undermines the classic Russian disinformation narrative of Ukraine as a “failed state.”
Bezviz is indeed proving to be a powerful tool for Ukrainians to gain knowledge about Europe, to travel more, and to bring European practices home. Thus, in addition to its symbolic value as a closer step towards EU integration, it also enhances Ukraine’s economic and cultural relationship with Europe. After the Maidan, Ukraine has seen a dramatic outpouring of energetic initiatives by young artists, promoters, entrepreneurs and officials, thereby transforming its cities. The shift was spurred mainly due to the loss of fear after the revolution, which changed the common thinking from “we can’t change anything” to “we are the only ones who can make a change.”
Now, this millennial boom, inspired by European practices, is conquering Ukraine’s urban landscapes. Culture has proven to be an effective tool for improving social cohesion, creating space for the reintegration of the citizens affected by the conflict. It also deepens the gap between the development trajectories and civilizational choices of Ukraine and Russia. The wave of disinformation attacks by Russian media aimed at discrediting visa liberalization demonstrates the degree of nervousness in the Kremlin. The nationwide TV network Zvezda run by the Russian Ministry of Defence, broadcast a special report called “Visa free for Ukraine – the path to nowhere”1. This disinformation effort has also sought to paint Ukraine as economically weak and the EU as lacking strong will.
In particular, the main messages were:
- The visa-free regime is an opportunity for illegal emigration;
- Ukraine is weak and economically unstable, and thus won’t be able to be “equal” in the EU area;
- The EU market will be saturated with cheap labor;
- The EU would be “embarrassed” to admit its mistake of lifting visas.
In fact, in the first three days after the visa-free regime entered into force, 4478 Ukrainian citizens entered the Schengen area with biometric passports, while only 7 were denied entry. The information campaign by Ukrainian government successfully raised awareness about the rules and regulations of the new agreement. For the moment none of the Russian myths have been confirmed, giving a promising start to the new era of the EU-Ukraine relationship, which will continue to withstand a wave of disinformation attacks while fighting for shared values on Ukraine’s front lines.