Iron Curtain a distant memory as Hungary looks to Schengen

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When Hungary joined the Schengen zone, it completed a remarkable change: Until 1989 one of the Communist world's western outposts, it was its job to keep people within the Soviet bloc.

28 December 2007
Budapest (dpa) - When Hungary joined the Schengen zone, it completed a remarkable change: Until 1989 one of the Communist world's western outposts, it was its job to keep people within the Soviet bloc.

From December 21, as one of Schengen's eastern border countries, it will have to keep people from other ex-Communist states out of the European Union's free travel area, where all internal land, sea and air border checks are removed.

As part of the move, all border controls will disappear at the Hungarian-Austrian border, finally putting away the snaking line where the Iron Curtain stood - and was first broken.

Hungary played a key role in the chain of events that finally led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, when then-Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock symbolically cut through the Iron Curtain near the border town of Sopron on June 27, 1989.

East Germans took advantage of the opportunity to flood across the border and travel to West Germany to reunite with family members. The rest is history.

Now, with the last remnants of the border disappearing, Austria and Hungary are hailing the new spirit of closeness.

Speaking at joint cabinet meeting in Budapest late November, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer called Hungary's Schengen membership a "quantum leap", adding: "In a few years' time, nobody will even know where the borders were because they won't be felt."

On the Hungarian side, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said Hungary's membership would open up "new possibilities" of partnership with Austria and other nations.

And, despite some rumblings from other Western nations, Austria appears to trust Hungary's abilities to defend the EU's borders.

"The work of the Hungarian border police has been evaluated during the last few months and we think they are doing a good job - we are sure there will be no problems with Hungary," Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia told DPA.

Nonetheless, Hungary faces one of the toughest tasks of the nine countries joining the Schengen zone, as it has to defend the non-EU Serbian, Ukrainian and Croatian borders, as well as the non-Schengen Romanian border.

Numerous Serbs and Ukrainians have been caught trying to cross illegally into Western Europe in recent years. The Hungarian border guard has announced stricter checks at the Serbian and Ukrainian borders to prevent those without Schengen visas getting in.

Hungary has spent tens of millions of European Union and Schengen funds since joining the EU in 2004.

Although it also used some of the Schengen funds to buy water cannons to use on anti-government protestors in the streets of Budapest, it mostly invested in CO2 detection probes, movement sensors and mobile X-ray units, as well as more guards and training.

Meanwhile, illegal immigrants also employed new means such as zipping themselves in suitcases or hiding in the stripped engine cavities of towed cars.

Apart from illegal immigration, the border guards had to deal with a rising heroin smuggle through the Balkans from Afghanistan. Hundreds of kilogrammes destined for Western Europe have been sezied in recent years.

But although Gollia was somewhat trepidatious in the face of such challenges and said Austrian guards would continue to control the border regions, Vienna overall appeared happy with the security efforts of its eastern neighbour.

The open borders make life considerably easier for those who regularly hop the short distance between Budapest and Vienna.

The biggest winners, however, are those citizens of the former Soviet states left behind in the rush to the EU who have Hungarian residence permits.

Tens of thousands of people from ex-Soviet states such as Serbia, Ukraine, Croatia and Georgia live and work in Hungary. These people will suddenly find the visa headaches they have had to endure when travelling further west lifted.

"The Schengen membership means the world to me," Jelica Vesic, 30, a charity worker and long-term resident in Hungary, told DPA. She often has to travel for her job, but as a Serbian citizen, she used to have to jump through the hoops to get into Western Europe.

"There will be no more collecting tons of document for visas and dealing with bureaucrats in consular offices," she said.

For Vesic, it also means pleasures that Hungarians take for granted - such as shopping trips to Vienna and weekend breaks in Europe.

"We won't have to plan our travel months in advance, so to celebrate we are going to Vienna in January to do some shopping," she said. "The next destination is Prague - I always wanted to see it, but never had the nerve to deal with the visa thing."

For Vesic and others like her, the Iron Curtain has finally come completely down.

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