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East Europeans Find Desire to Travel Isn’t Enough

August 24, 1990

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) _ Georgi Panchev and thousands of other Bulgarians have spent hours this summer outside the Greek Consulate, waiting in vain for travel visas.

Tens of thousands of East Europeans have discovered their new freedom to travel may not mean other people want them to visit.

″If they’d just put up a sign saying, ‘We don’t take any more Bulgarians,’ then I wouldn’t stand here and wait,″ Panchev, 42, said as a brusque guard turned a couple away from the consulate door.

″A person loses all his hope waiting here,″ Todor Dishkov said. ″We are waiting like beggars for something to happen.″

An informal survey of conditions imposed by Western countries, which used to complain about communist restrictions on foreign travel, suggests Britain, Greece and the United States lead the list of difficult destinations.

Britain, for example, requires exhaustive proof of financial resources and possession of a return ticket.

Travel restrictions vary widely.

Hungarians and Czechoslovaks need no visas for most of Western Europe, but Bulgarians, Romanians and Poles face waits of weeks or months for approval. Western governments increasingly fear the poorer East Europeans simply won’t return home.

Romanians typically have waited 40 to 60 days for the 30,000 visas the Italian Consulate in Bucharest issued in the last seven months.

Czechoslovaks simply board an overnight tour bus, see Venice by day and ride home the next night.

That exhausting form of tourism illustrates the second difficulty for East Europeans: lack of Western money to spend.

Nearly all East European countries have revised official exchange rates to favor Western visitors, but popular demand for dollars or marks remains so high that black markets still thrive.

The shortage of hard currency, lure of Western consumer luxury and comparatively good wages paid in the West for even menial jobs tempt many East Europeans to work at least part of the time while abroad.

West Germany and the United States, with its large Polish community, are favorite destinations for Poles seeking work that often pays more in a month than they make at home in a year.

University graduates in Czechoslovakia, where the communists made dissident intellectuals into coal stokers, often go to West Germany to earn marks for a new car, furniture or video recorder.

Of the estimated 50,000 Bulgarians visiting Greece before it slowed the visa process, some helped harvest olives for a few days.

Such arrangements, officially illegal, may not disturb Western employers, Eastern workers or governments very much. Communism made finagling a way of life in Eastern Europe and it was bound to move West when the Iron Curtain fell.

Regular bending of the rules does worry authorities, however.

Poles have earned a reputation throughout Europe as peddlers and smugglers, thanks mainly to a few ″businessmen″ who travel regularly to Berlin or Vienna.

Berlin put visa restrictions on Poles at the beginning of July. In an effort to avert curbs by Austria, the only Western nation that does not require visas of its citizens, Poland imposed strict customs controls and invited the Austrians to help enforce them.

It is harder to stop an educated East European who wants to leave his country for good.

The ″brain drain″ is a particular problem for Bulgaria and Romania, where shattered economies offer little hope of riches or satisfaction.

Bulgaria’s passport office said more than 10 percent of the 44,105 people with higher education who went abroad from January to July did not return. Most were under age 40.

With a rapidly aging population of just under 9 million, Bulgaria cannot afford such a loss of young talent.

One-quarter of the 220,000 ethnic Germans in Romania’s Transylvania region have emigrated since free travel became possible in January.

Virginia Young, U.S. consul general in Bucharest, estimates about one-third of the 1.5 million Romanians who have received passports this year would like to live in America.

Most lack any of the qualifications for obtaining a visa. Interviews on emigration requests are backed up to November 1991 for lack of space and staff, Young said.

Few countries have stopped granting requests for asylum to East Europeans. ″Romania is a democracy now,″ said Klaus Branch of the West German Embassy in Bucharest.

That argument is lost on ordinary East Europeans whose dreary daily routine has brightened little with the advent of freedom.

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