Full visa regime affects thousands

  • 2000-09-07
  • Aleksei Gynter
TALLINN - The Seto Congress has protested the decision of the government to implement a full visa regime for residents of the border areas beginning Sept. 11. The decision will stop the simplified procedure for border crossings, previously available for people who own real estate, go to churches, work or have relatives buried across the border.

The Setoes are people of Estonian heritage living in the southeastern part of the country on both sides of the Estonian-Russian border.

According to Aare Horn, a member of the council of elders of the Seto Congress, about 2,500 residents, Setoes and Russians living in Estonia, will suffer from the government's decision in the southeastern border region alone.

"If we take into account the people living in the northeastern area, that number will be twice as high," said Horn.

The exact demand of the Congress is a smoother transition to the new regime. This point of view is also supported by the Russian side.

"It is obvious that the (Russian and Estonian) sides are unlikely to enforce the visa regime by Sept. 11 without prejudice to the residents of the border areas," said the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement on Aug. 24.

The main concern of the Russian Foreign Ministry is that it is "unrealistic to arrange the number of annual multiple-entry visas for all the people - from 10,000 to 15,000 - who need them."

The Russian Foreign Ministry also stated that EU has not specified a rigid deadline for imposing a full-scale visa regime with Russia. The simplified border crossing could therefore last until the end of the year, according to the ministry.

Estonia and Russia will issue 4,000 free visas each. The rest must pay 1,020 kroons ($59) for the multiple-entry visas.

Horn said the deadline for visa applications is already past. About 3,500 people applied for a free visa in Voru, in the southeastern region. "There's probably the same number in the northeast," bringing the total amount up to 7,000, and there are only 4,000 free visas available, he said.

Commenting on the visa issue, Taavi Toom, spokesman of the Estonian Foreign Ministry, said it is a question of domestic affairs. He stressed the visa system will affect a relatively small number of residents.

"But in the long term, the visa regime is needed for Estonia to meet the requirements of EU to enter the Schengen zone," added Toom.

The date, Sept. 11, was chosen for several reasons. Most vacations end in the beginning of September, and a certain period of church holidays, for which people often cross the border, also ends in those days.

The free visas will be issued on the basis of lists composed by each side. The Russian list is already approved by Estonia. "Our work with Russian specialists was constructive. Our list is being controlled by the Russian side," said Toom.

The Estonian side, according to Toom, is ready for the visa system. The first 243 free visas were issued on Sept. 1.