In a region once riddled with borders of barbed wire and gun emplacements - Friday's historic enlargement of the EU's border free zone - known as Schengen - has particular resonance. The Visegrad four of Hungary, Poland the Czech Republic and Slovakia, along with Slovenia, were among the nine newer EU member states celebrating their new ease of travel. It was also a time to reflect on the unhappy events these borders had witnessed in the past.
I am standing here in Berg at the border crossing point between Slovakia and Austria. Behind me workers are demolishing the buildings where the office of customs and border police used to be. Until 1989 this area was covered by barbed wire and no ordinary Slovak was allowed to come here.
Given the fact that Bratislava is located less than 3 kms from this border crossing point I’ve curious to find out what its inhabitants think about the fact that from now on nobody will stop them on their way to Vienna.
“It makes me feel free.”
“I am actually an Austrian who comes to Bratislava very often because I have friends here and know the city. Not being obliged to show my passport at the border is a plus for me. I think it should encourage more and more Austrians to come and visit Slovakia.”
“Probably now people will travel easier to other countries.”
Slovakia has a 98 km border with Ukraine, which is not a member of the European Union, thus border checks will stay in place there. But ordinary people living in that area still think that it’s good that Slovakia joined the Schegnen Zone.
“People have relatives across the border in Ukraine and maybe it will be easier for us to go and visit them. Now during Christmas time many Slovaks go shopping in Ukraine because it’s cheaper.”
“I don’t think this will stop Ukrainians from emigrating. Those who are skilled will do it anyway and we’ll find a place in the EU. Look at how many Ukrainians are in Prague, for example.”
Back at the Austrian-Slovak border, in Berg, I could feel that today we witnessed a historical moment for Slovakia given the fact that 18 years ago this place was surrounded by barbed wire and many Slovaks were killed trying to cross it in order to escape from the communist part of Europe.
Communist propaganda was praised the border guards for being very effective in catching all those who tried to cross the border. The use of arms was regarded as a normal practice. The border guards were supposed to be envied by everybody, among other things, for spending their working hours in nature.
Now the Nation’s Memory Institute, the governmental agency charged with researching Slovakia’s communist past is committed to bring to justice those who were responsible for these crimes. Lubomir Morbacher a researcher at this institute explains.
“Next year, the UPN is preparing a complex recommendation to the Prosecutor General’s office, regarding 30 victims who died while trying to cross the border with Austria. We believe we are dealing with crimes against humanity, because someone had to develop and maintain this system, and issue orders to guard the border with the West in the way that it was guarded.”
I was wondering what might these former border guards who served during communism think today? Well, none of those we found wanted to be interviewed. And if I am allowed a personal comment, I am sure that most of them enjoy the new freedom of travelling to capitalist Vienna, without being stopped and checked.
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