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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine to Ease Visas for Eurovision

KIEV -- EU citizens will soon be able to forget about invitations, long lines and hefty processing fees when applying for Ukrainian visas.

As part of its effort to bring Ukraine closer to Europe -- and attract more fans to the Eurovision Song Contest -- the government intends to roll out the welcome mat as early as April, said Oleg Rybachuk, the deputy prime minister in charge of European integration.

The new visa policy for EU citizens was being hastily thrown together at the personal request of President Viktor Yushchenko, officials said. It was a subject of high-level talks Thursday with a visiting senior EU official, Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

"We are talking about substantial simplifications," Rybachuk said in an interview Wednesday night. "We will not be having those lines, those procedures. You will be able to get on board the plane and get your visa upon arrival in Ukraine."

Citizens from other countries might also enjoy eased rules, but officials said it was too early to give a possible timetable.

The new rules for EU citizens should be in place in time for the Eurovision Song Contest, which kicks off May 19, said Rybachuk, who heads the committee organizing Eurovision.

Thousands of tourists are expected for the annual music festival, which will feature contestants from 40 European countries this year. Kiev is hosting the event after Ukrainian pop star and Yushchenko ally Ruslana won the top award in 2004.

"There will be so many tourists here, and by that time we will make sure that there will not be any visa problems we will be ashamed of," Rybachuk said.

Visas will probably not be free of charge for EU citizens, but the price will be considerably reduced, Rybachuk said.

Visa prices for Europeans, Americans, Canadians and Australians currently start at about $100, and an application must be submitted days in advance. The maximum stay for EU citizens is one year, and obtaining a new visa means leaving the country and reapplying at a Ukrainian embassy.

The current policy is widely regarded by Europeans living and working in Kiev as a major headache.

"It's a serious issue right now," said Jorge Intriago, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Kiev and vice president of the European Business Association in Ukraine.

"From the very beginning there's a barrier placed by the requirement to have an invitation letter and by the costs of the visa," he said. "The new policy sends a very strong message: 'We're open for visitors.'"

Guenther Nieschlag, the Ukraine country manager for Austrian Airlines, called the current visa regime discouraging.

"To get a Ukrainian visa in Vienna, you have to queue outside the embassy, even in the cold," he said. "The consular section is very small, so there are maybe 50 or 60 people on the street. It's disgusting, plus it's expensive."

The new policy will encourage foreign investors to give the country a closer look, Intriago said. "It will make a big difference," he said. "The signal is the country's open."

By simplifying its visa rules, Ukraine would be following in the steps of a handful of other former Soviet republics in welcoming guests from EU member states, the United States, Canada and Australia. The Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- lifted all short-term visa requirements for citizens of those countries in the early 1990s.

Georgia allows Western visitors to buy visas at the border for $10, while Azerbaijan offers visas at Baku Airport for $40. Some countries, such as Armenia and Uzbekistan, still require visas but no longer require tourists to obtain invitation letters.

Russia moved to simplify its visa regime a couple of years ago, but foreigners complain that the process remains expensive, unpredictable and time-consuming.

Russia does not require Ukrainian citizens to obtain Russian visas, and Ukraine offers Russians the same courtesy.