LVIV – For many Ukrainians, visa-free access to the EU means work or study in Poland, not a weekend in Paris.
Poland is fast displacing Russia as the top destination for Ukrainian gastarbeiters. Poland now hosts 1.3 million Ukrainian guest workers and 30,000 Ukrainian university student
Nowhere is the rush toward Poland more evident than in this city, briefly ruled by Poland between the two world wars
Lviv’s airport opened in 1929 as Polish military airfield with ‘domestic’ flights to Warsaw and Krakow. Almost one century later, geography is reasserting itself.
Gone are the three-hour flights east to Moscow. Instead, the airport’s digital display board show departures for one hour hops west to five Polish cities – Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Pozan, and Radom. In coming weeks, direct service starts to Krakow and Bydgoszcz. Three carriers compete for this newly lucrative Polish trade – LOT, Sprintair and Wizzair.
From Kyiv, Wizzair offering flights from Zhulyany airport to Katowice, and, next month, to Lublin.
Almost over night, Poland has become the best served nation for Ukrainian air travelers, with direct flights to eight of its 10 largest cities.
"Our policy is to encourage more flights to Ukraine, to improve Ukraine's connections with other countries," Marina Skrypnyk, press advisor for European integration for the Infrastructure Ministry, said in Kyiv.
On the ground, Ukraine is rapidly expanding a six-month old experiment with fast cross border trains to Poland.
Inaugurated last December, a train runs daily from Kyiv to Lviv to Przemysl, Poland. Ukrainian and Polish border officials checking passports on board. Officials walk down passenger cars checking passports with portable wireless computers.
This train avoids the massive lines at road border crossings, where bus and car travelers can wait up to eight hours. This test train is a big hit, sometimes running at 100 percent capacity.
As a result, Ukrainian Railways is adding two more cross border lines this summer. It also has upgraded its website to allow on line purchases of rail tickets to Poland.
On June 11, a second fast route started, from Kovel, Volyn Oblast, to Chelm, Poland, a 90-km ride. On Aug. 1, a similar train is to start service from Lviv to Krakow. Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister, predicts these trains will carry 100,000 passengers this year.
Ukraine and the European Union are studying the feasibility of adjusting the western portion of Ukraine’s rail network to conform with European track gauges. If westbound track from major rail junctions near the EU border, such as Lviv and Kovel, were European gauge, border crossings would be faster.
At the same, Ukrainian officials are debating this summer ending train service with Russia and imposing biometric passports on Russian visitors.
In the first two weeks of visa free travel with the EU, about 45,000 Ukrainians crossed the border simply by showing their new biometric passports.
With billboards in Kyiv beckoning Ukrainians to come and work in Poland, Hungary, Czech and Slovakia, many people are traveling to the EU to take summer jobs. By law, Ukrainians with biometric passports do not need visas to make two 90-day stays every year in the EU.
In Poland, 1.3 million Ukrainians have work permits – six times the level of 2013, on the eve of Russia’s attack. This year, Russia’s government is banning money transfers to Ukraine. And Poland’s government is adopting laws to accommodate more Ukrainian workers.
By land and by air, Ukraine is turning its back on Russia -- and reconnecting with Poland, the powerhouse of Central Europe.
For comments and story ideas, please contact UBJ Western Ukraine Correspondent Mark Satter at firstname.lastname@example.org