The liberalization process of the visa regime reached its final point and as of April 28th 2014, Moldovan citizens can travel without visas in 30 Schengen countries. It is indeed, a historic event for Moldova, as being the first country within the Eastern Partnership to enjoy a visa-free regime. At the same time, However, there is some uncertainty across the “post-liberalization” period .The described challenges should be viewed as hypotheses derived from the country peculiarities and public opinions, but also from the experience of the Western Balkan countries:
- Challenge #1: Short stay visits versus "tourism with working purposes". Schengen visa abolition for Moldovan citizens refers to possibility to make short term stays (90 days of stay within 180 days). The stay shall exclude migration for working purposes. At the same time, the ability to travel over short period of time within the Schengen Area shall not be confused with the right of free movement within the EU. This right can only be used by EU citizens within its entire territory, and that includes migration. From this point of view, it is wrong to assume that the visa liberalization facilitates an access to the EU labor market. Currently, some public opinions propagate the idea that visa liberalization would create some premises for a short stay visit to become something as "tourism with working purposes". Thus, improper use of the liberalized visa regime may generate negative effects on the country's reputation in the EU. It may also cause complications for the sustainability of the free visa regime and negative consequences for citizens who break the travel rules (such as fines or travel bans).  Apparently, this is a minor risk, due to the limited demographic capacity of the country and the previous migration flows. Nevertheless, tightening the conditions of Moldovan workers in the Russian Federation may cause a shift of the migration flows to the West. This phenomenon might be conditioned by the recovery of the European economy.
Conclusion: The visa-free travel regime does not provide opportunities of employment in European Union. Any attempts to circumvent the rules will involve major costs related to Moldova’s credibility within the EU authorities. If "tourism with working purposes" will become a phenomenon, the reintroduction of visas for Moldovans would become inevitable. Additional pressure on the visa-free regime with the EU may result from losing the access to the labor market of the Russian Federation and the reorientation of migration flows.
- Challenge #2: Visa-free travel versus “the new old rules”. Visa liberalization is based on strict rules, which will be rigorously tested at least in the short run (6 months - 1 year) after entering into force. Although the visa regime has been liberalized, the previously imposed requirements are still valid. Therefore, checking the documents confirming the purpose of the visit, proof of sufficient funds and return tickets etc., might take place when crossing the Schengen states border (including Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus). Most likely, the Moldovan authorities will try to take over this role for the citizens when exiting the country, to avoid cases of returning Moldovans back by European authorities.
Conclusion: In the short and medium term, it is possible that those rules previously applied by EU Embassies and Common Visa Center for obtaining the Schengen visa to be used extensively when exiting the country. In other words, Moldovan authorities should ensure that Moldovans do not break the rules of the visa-free regime.
- Challenge #3: "Balkan scenario" and the issue of asylum seekers. Visa liberalization for the Western Balkan countries (2009-2010) increased the proportion of asylum seekers from this region in EU countries. According to Eurostat, these countries hold the top positions after the number of applicants (top 30 for 2013: Serbia – 4th place, FYR Macedonia – 12th, Albania – 13th, Bosnia – 17th). Before visa liberalization, only Serbia was in the top, ranked 16th (5235 asylum seekers), which is twelve positions below than in 2013. Consequently, several European countries have pledged for reintroducing the visas for citizens of Western Balkan countries, in order to stop the flood of asylum seekers caused by visa liberalization. Moreover, a significant portion of all asylum seekers from these countries are young people (between 30-40 %). Although Moldova is not included in the EU rankings on the countries exporting asylum seekers, than can change after visa liberalization. This will depend upon the degree of protection of the rights of various minority groups, and the situation in the Eastern regions of the country. Finally, the EU can use a "mechanism of suspension", that will allow reintroduction of visas, although only in exceptional circumstances, such as increased number of asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and readmission denials. Visa reintroduction is temporary (for 6 months) and can only be done after careful evaluation of the causes of the visa-free regime abuses.
Conclusion: The "Balkan scenario" is still unlikely for Moldova. Nevertheless, there are a number of circumstances (situation in Transnistria, respecting the minority rights) that can lead to a foreshadowing of similar problems.
- Challenge #4: Increasing counterfeiting activities of Moldovan documents versus advancing their protection. Moldovan biometric passports enable free movement in the EU. Therefore, attempts to tamper these documents can take shape, especially in the existent corruptive environment in public institutions and the lack of control over the Transnistrian region and the local population records. At the same time, the delay of visa liberalization for Ukrainians can generate some interest for Moldovan documents from the trans-border criminal groups. Central authorities have implemented a series of measures dedicated to protect the biometric passports (chips with advanced operating systems, technical elements of security, recording passport within an international database). However, security measures may not prevent or combat corruption in public institutions.
Conclusion: There are a number of constraints that create favorable conditions for forging the Moldavian passports, which is a challenge to the visa liberalization. Although authorities are strengthening the documents’ security measures, continued efforts are needed to counter corruption.
Finally, without diminishing the importance and benefits of eliminating the EU visa regime for Moldovan citizens, the next priority will relate to ensuring the sustainability of these facilities. This will crucially depend on the implementation of our country’s commitments to the European partners (on migration management, securing documents, public order and security, as well as on human rights etc.). Therefore, the "post-liberalization" phase may be considered more important. Or this requires both effective implementation of actions initiated in the preparation stage ("pre-liberalization") and also finding efficient solutions to overcome the threats described above.
This material has been developed by the Independent Think Tank EXPERT-GRUP with the support of the “Open Society” Foundation, within the 2013/2014 Institutional Support project. Authors are solely responsible for the views and opinions expressed in this document, which may not be necessarily shared by the donors.
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