Vijai Maheshwari, Politico, 22.05.2016
UKRAINE BORDERS FOUR EU COUNTRIES BUT AN IRON CURTAIN STILL SEPARATES IT FROM THE WEST
When I embarked on a road trip from Ukraine’s capital Kiev to Romania’s Transylvania in early May, I was blissfully unaware of the fear and paranoia that lurks in the border zones between East and West.
I had bought a Peugeot convertible in Estonia the previous year, and needed to drive it out of Ukraine to avoid paying expensive import duties. I was also itching to check out Transylvania, famous for its wild mountains, Teutonic castles and Dracula vibes.
What I found in this twilight zone between East and West was a sense of deep distrust, especially in the wake of Ukraine’s war with Russia, and the heightened fear of terror attacks. I was accused of being a cigarette smuggler and labeled a dangerous ISIL operative at the tense Moldova-Ukraine border crossing.
* * *
Ukraine’s 2014 revolution was as much about opening the country’s borders to Europe as it was about fighting a corrupt oligopoly. Visa-free travel to Europe would have been the holy grail of a successful uprising. But more than two years since Russia invaded part of the country, Ukraine’s citizens are still locked out of Europe. Though the country has fulfilled the conditions for visa-free travel, the proposal to allow Ukrainian citizens to enter the Schengen zone without a visa has yet to be approved by national governments and the European Parliament.
Ukraine borders four EU countries — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — but an iron curtain still separates it from its neighbors to the West.
As we approach the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi close to the border, our mobiles switch to Vodafone Romania. “The people here are already in Europe,” says my companion, mistaking proximity to Europe with prosperity. “They’re much better off than the rest of Ukraine.”
But the streets of this stately, former Austro-Hungarian city — once dubbed “Little Vienna” — are littered with potholes and its neo-classical buildings bear testament to the ravages of time. The city appears to be falling apart.
“Cigarettes?” asks the Romanian border guard as we hand over our passports. I show him two recently-purchased cartons of cigarettes — 20 packs — and he cackles with displeasure.
“Only two packs per person,” he reprimands, confiscating the rest.
The Western borders of Ukraine, it turns out, are major hubs for black market cigarettes and alcohol. A pack of Marlboro’s costs just $1.1 in Ukraine compared to its $4 price tag in neighboring Romania. Smugglers have been known to fly cigarettes over the border in hang gliders. An estimated 10 billion cigarettes are smuggled out of Ukraine every year. In 2012, Slovak authorities uncovered a 700-meter long underground tunnel on the Ukraine-Slovak border used for cigarette smuggling. Go figure.
Transylvania is magical after the hurly-burly of Ukraine: The roads are smooth, and the picturesque villages snuggled against the lush Carpathian mountains are well-tended and clean. It’s clear that more money has flowed into the region since European accession.
We spend a few nights near the awe-inspiring Bicaz gorge, with its vertiginous cliffs and serpentine roads, before heading to Dracula’s castle in Bran. Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula, passed through this medieval castle numerous times, and it’s now a major tourist site. We escape the crowds of jostling Chinese tourists for a picnic, overlooking the snow-capped peaks.
Ukraine’s struggles seem a world away.
We eventually exit Romania via Iași, a regional capital in eastern Romania. The atmosphere gets seedier as we approach the Moldovan border — gypsy kids surround the car whenever we stop at a traffic light. The border crossing itself is packed with Romanians heading to the wine region of Moldova for Victory Day weekend.
“Moldova was once a part of Romania,” declares a Romanian man waiting in line beside us. (Moldova was indeed seized during the war by the Soviet Union.) “We would get it back if it weren’t for Putin.”
The man helps me through the complicated paperwork on the Moldovan side. The Moldovan border guards are rude and inefficient, and we wait in various lines to collect the requisite stamps. It becomes obvious we’re back in hardcore Eastern Europe.
* * *
We travel eastwards, along the northern tip of Moldova. The roads here are even worse than in Ukraine. We drive in second gear for a couple of hours, navigating endless potholes until suddenly, as though in a dream, a fantastic two lane highway appears. We accelerate into cruising speed and spot a signboard besides the road: “This road was built with help from the American Government.”
The super highway is supposed to connect Moldova’s capital Chișinău with the Ukrainian border, but is far from finished. It’s now just a rump road in the middle of Moldova’s wine country.
The super highway ends 20 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, and we’re back to war with the potholes. We stop for directions several times before we find the remote Ukrainian border point at the end of bright yellow cornfields. The Moldovan side of the border crossing is a breeze, but we are kept waiting on the Ukrainian border. I pass the time chatting to an elderly Ukrainian man who claims he crosses the border twice a day.
“I live in Ukraine and work in Moldova,” he says, speaking Russian. He sighs nostalgically. “During Soviet times, there was no border. That’s why this village on the Moldovan side is mostly Ukrainian.”
When an hour passes and our documents still haven’t been returned, I walk over to the passport cubicle. A boyish-looking border guard frowns while flipping through my U.S. passport.
“We’re just calling Interpol to check whether you’re on their list.”
His heavyset, bearded partner shakes his head solemnly.
“We had a Moldovan man pass through a few months ago who was responsible for killing 42 people in Paris a few years back in a terror attack,” he tells me. Paranoia, it seems, has got the better of them.
We wait another hour while they attempt to call Interpol on their Nokia phones. I assume they are bluffing, biding their time until they can make up their minds about whether or not the Arab-looking man in front of them might be dangerous.
Their nervousness is understandable: Ukraine fears incursions from the Moldova’s Russian-controlled breakaway region of Transnistria, and has tightened security on the borders. It’s also clear they consider my appearance suspicious. I try to lighten the mood.
I talk about New York, and Donald Trump, and black neighborhoods in the inner cities that, I tell them, are in many ways more dangerous than Ukraine. They begin to relax.
“I’d be fine in any neighborhood in America,” boasts the toughest-looking guard. “I just came back from fighting the bastard Russians in the East.”
The conversation slowly deflates the tension, and the guards finally relent.
“We’ll let you enter Ukraine,” says the boyish one. “But I hope we made the right decision.”
It’s almost midnight when we finally enter into Ukraine. As we drive along the eerie, dark roads, I think: It’s been a long time since I was so relieved to be crossing back into the East. I have called Ukraine home for the past six years, and the possibility of being barred from entering my adopted country was devastating. It was a fraction of the keen awareness, I realized, that many Ukrainians must have of being locked out of Europe for so long.