LVIV — One year after Ukraine embarked on a free trade pact with the European Union, radio stations here broadcast the waits at border crossings like weather reports – a 2-hour wait here, a 5-hour wait there, an 8-hour wait there.
Last year, cross-border traffic grew by 10 percent. Even more growth is forecast for this year as Brussels is expected to extend to Ukraine visa-free status in May.
Airlines are scheduling more flights from Ukraine to European cities this summer. Six weeks ago, Ukrainian Railways inaugurated daily train service from Kyiv to Lyiv and across the border to Poland. After it proved to be wildly popular, the railroad announced that it is working on similar border crossing trains to Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
But for Ukraine’s border patrol, it is business as usual.
“We have enough resources to cope with the growing traffic,” Volodymyr Sheremet, spokesman of the State Border Guard Service in western Ukraine, said when asked about the impact of visa-free travel to the EU. He said there are no plans to hire additional personnel or to invest in more lane checkpoints.
Last year, cross border traffic hit 11 million vehicles carrying 35.7 million people, up from 10 million vehicles carrying 32.3 million people. Sheremet forecasts another 10 percent growth this year.
Ukraine shares borders with four EU countries: Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. The busiest stretch is 535 km with Poland, with six road border crossings.
On the other side of the border lies the European Union -- the world’s largest and richest single market. To reach these 508 million consumers, China is investing $1 trillion dollars on new ports, highways and railroads.
In contrast, Lviv authorities spent $20,000 on 200 plastic signs to help separate traffic into different lanes during the recent Christmas holidays. With luck, these temporary signs will hold up through the spring. This year, Orthodox Ukraine and Catholic Poland celebrate Easter on the same day – April 16.
At busier crossings, such as the Krakovets-Korczowa crossing, 70 km west of Lviv on the E4 highway, Ukraine’s government has introduced “VIP Lanes” for cars and small trucks with EU license plates.
One minor reform would clear up the lines.
As much as 85 percent of road traffic is composed of older Poland-registered cars used by Ukrainians with letters of permission from the vehicles’ owners. In a legal loophole popular in Western Ukraine, thousands of Ukrainians buy cheap used cars in Poland.
Because of Ukrainian taxes, the average price of a legally resold cars in Ukraine is $4,500-6,000 – three times the $1,500 price of the same car bought in Poland.
But to remain legal in Ukraine, owners must drive across the border weekly. Ukrainian nationals living within 30 km need no visa, just a permit. This constant flow of cars clogs the system.
To free up the busiest crossings, Ukraine now offers westbound drivers the choice of four lanes.
The first is for EU and Ukrainian cars. The second is for buses. The third for trucks moving under the TIR system, the French abbreviation for International Road Transports. This treaty expedites cross border movement of sealed cargo containers.
The fourth lane, for border region residents, is marked MRG, Maly Ruch Graniczny, or Small Border Movement in Polish.
A recent trip to the Krakovets crossing point found dozens of cars in the border region line, while only a few waited in the VIP lane.
Despite the new signs, Volydymyr Glovatskyj, a trucker, said many drivers were confused.
“There is confusion, and some drivers with Ukrainian license plates wait in the wrong lane,” said Glovatskyj, who often crosses the border. “But still, the lines are not as terrible as they used to be on holidays.”
Other drivers don’t see much of a difference.
“In the beginning of January, I spent more than five hours in line on the border with Poland,” said Vadym Gnatyshyn, a Lviv resident. “The new system is not satisfactory yet. Cars are all mixed up in the wrong lanes.”
Some complained paying a bribe of UAH 200 ($7) to border guards for access to priority lanes. Officials denied any such practice existed.
“We haven’t received any complaints in person, or to our anonymous telephone hotline so far,” said Sheremet, the spokesman.
Some Ukrainian drivers complain that the problem lies with a go slow pace on Poland’s side of the border. They say Poles take longer to check Ukrainians than other EU citizens.
“The Ukrainians are polite and efficient, but the Poles are surly to the point of rudeness, deliberately slow, especially to Ukrainians,” said one Ukrainian who asked not to be identified.
Checks take no more than 10 minutes on the Ukrainian side, he said. While the Polish can take up to one hour to do the same job.
To speed traffic, Poland also introduced an EU only lane. In addition, a Polish mobile phone app shows waiting times at each border crossing. But questions submitted by the UBJ in early January to Polish border officials in Warsaw have gone unanswered.
Delays do not seem to be caused by Polish border guards searching for immigrants seeking to slip into the EU without visas.
“Frontex, a European agency that deals with the external borders, doesn’t see Ukraine as a risky country for illegal immigration,” said Viktor Nazarenko, the Head of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. “Compared to Europe, the percentage of the illegals is very small,”
Last year, 891 refugees were detained along western Ukraine’s EU border, mostly from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This was up slightly from 700 migrants detained in 2015.
“In 2016, we caught 40 Syrians, compared to 211 in 2015,” said Roman Stakhiv, a representative of western Ukraine’s Border Guard Service. By contrast, over 1 million refugees entered the EU in 2015.
Cigarette smuggling is a greater preoccupation for border guards.
The EU pressures Ukraine to crack down on the flow of cheap cigarettes. Because of varying tax rates, a pack of Marlboros costs 92 cents in Ukraine, $3.76 in Poland and $6.45 in Germany.
Border guards tearing out car seats and inspecting car bodies can turn a one-hour border crossing into an eight-hour nightmare – endured in below freezing temperatures.
“Last year we seized nearly 2.5 million packs, compared to 2 million the year before,” said Stakhiv, the Ukrainian border guard spokesman.
Border guards judge their work by the volume of cigarette seized -- not by the volume of man and woman hours wasted in lines.
For comments and news tips, please email UBJ Western Ukraine Correspondent Sasha Kharchenko at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Border guards and police manage lines of cars (Credit: Volodymyr Sheremet).
Photo: A new road sign shows a separate lane for cars with Ukrainian and EU licence plates (Credit: Sasha Kharchenko).
Photo: Temporary plastic barriers separate lanes (Credit: Volodymyr Sheremet).
Posted Feb. 6, 2017