German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer isn't the only one in Germany suffering as s result of the tourist-visa scandal. Ukrainian students and other foreigners here say life has gotten harder for them, too.
Out in the cold: long visa lines at the German Embassy in Kiev
It has certainly been a cold late winter in Europe. But since a scandal over the granting of visas in Kiev swept through the media earlier this year, Ukranians living in Germany are more likely to complain about the chill they feel from their neighbors.
In 1999, Germany's Foreign Ministry under Joschka Fischer (photo, below) eased conditions for citizens of the former Soviet bloc to get German visas. The opposition has said the edict helped "hundreds of thousands" of illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe enter the country on tourist visas between 2000 and 2003, a number of them helped by organized criminals. Many are suspected of being drug traffickers or women forced into prostitution in Germany.
Joschka Fischer accepted responsibility
Since the affair hit the headlines, however, getting a visa has become more difficult than ever. Now, students who used to spend a few quiet months here studying the language say they are faced with stereotypes that all people from Eastern Europe are members of the mafia, illegal workers or prostitutes. Commentators have complained that the media has taken a lowbrow tone on the topic, fanning the flames of bigotry.
Ukrainian Viktor Onoprienko was in Germany in 2001, where he was studying German at the Steinke Language Institute in Bonn. Back then, he got his visa without a problem. This time, it was a different story.
"I was really lucky," Onoprienko said. "But for many of my friends it is a big problem. They have to wait a long time for a visa, or they just don't get one at all."
Most countries issue student visas as a matter of course to people who want to learn a language. To get one, the applicant usually just has to show a contract with a language school. Since the beginning of the year, German officials have been checking on these students to see if they are showing up for class.
Contrary to what many people believe, there are rarely students who fail to attend school, said Yawen Xuan, who works at the Steinke Institute. "Of 100 students, there is at most one who doesn't regularly come to class, where we suspect they didn't really want the visa in order to learn German."
Oxana Krawtschenko came to Bonn from Odessa because she wants to study German literature. At first, she said, she felt good living in Germany. "But after a few weeks, I noticed the locals reacted strangely when they learned I come from Ukraine. They sometimes asked me what I am doing here, whether I want to study or work. People think Ukrainians only want to work illegally."
German-Russian novelist Vladimir Kaminer ("Russian Disco") spoke for many when he complained in a recent interview in Der Spiegel magazine about the tone the debate has taken on in the German media.
"Russian Disco" author Vladimir Kaminer
"The German media is spreading the impression that Ukrainians -- who oddly enough they recently celebrated as heroes of democracy -- as basically a hoard of thieves, murderers and prostitutes just waiting to cross the border," Kaminer (photo) said. Such a tone "falls on fertile ground" in some segments of the German population, furthering bigotry and racism.
"Already under Hitler, 'the barbarian hoards from the East' was a successfully propagated enemy image," Kaminer told Der Spiegel.
Meanwhile, he said, the fear that eastern Europeans are adding to Germany's high unemployment is only part of the story. "It's a popular argument -- especially for the people who employ illegal Ukrainian workers at starvation wages, or for the guys who visit the Ukrainian prostitutes," he said.
Germany stands to lose
Kaminer warned that restricting visas further will only lead to more criminal activity and more human trafficking. "The great paradox in this debate is this: I read every day that loose visa regulation led to criminality and human trafficking. But the opposite is true. The more difficult it is to get a visa, the more lucrative it is for the criminals who help people cross the border."
But even if their lives have gotten harder, Kaminer is convinced that it is not the Ukrainians who suffer most as a result of the debate. "The real victims here are the Germans," he told Der Spiegel. "The damage done by this campaign and the fear of foreigners it has created is more lasting than any foreign minister. ... You can't label every foreigner a thief or a whore."