How the East was won over

Many former Soviet countries are now embracing the West
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The Independent Travel

On friday 15 February, about a hundred smiling well-wishers converged on the Lithuanian Embassy in Gloucester Place in London, to celebrate the republic's National Day. As they strode into the embassy, few will have noticed a small piece of paper pointing to the visa section down a precarious side stairway. Why should they? Since independence was regained in 1991, the British have not needed visas for Lithuania.

The scene four miles away at 78 Kensington Park Road could not be more different. This is the Ukrainian Consulate. Here, only one person ever smiles, and he does so around the clock. This is the portrait of President Kutchma, with the same pose President Brezhnev adopted in Soviet embassies worldwide during the 1970s. Prospective visitors to Ukraine alternately scowl, swear and shout, in the hope of securing a visa during the two hours each weekday morning that the building condescends to open.

This pair of missions shows the two divergent camps into which the former communist countries were quickly divided. Lithuania, together with its Baltic neighbours and most of Eastern Europe, wants to put the Soviet past behind it as quickly as possible. Not only have visas gone, so have pungent cigarettes, government monopolies, worthless roubles and restaurants that close at 9pm. In their place are credit cards, metered taxis and more Irish pubs than County Cork. The West has taken over.

The practical section of modern guidebooks shows this most clearly. The "What to Take" section has shrunk, as toothpaste, malt whisky and branded medicines are as easily available in Vilnius and Krakow as they are in Birmingham or Bordeaux.

In some respects the East has overtaken the West. Estonians like to tell the story of a delegation of bankers who came expecting to explain how to process cheques. They were asked why on earth the British still bothered with paper in an era of electronic transfers.

So keen are the next wave of EU applicants from Eastern Europe to meet all the entrance criteria, that faintly unhygienic restaurants are closed with a zeal unknown in Brussels, where the regulations were drafted.

Arriving at an "old" airport such as Minsk, represents as strong a divide as the former Iron Curtain ever did. Customs forms may no longer ask for details of the pornography you are presumed to be importing. But an inventory of valuables is still required, and only a colossal bribe can overcome the problem of a minor error on a visa. Do not expect to be through in less than an hour.

Once through, do not ask about the airport bus, since it does not exist, and never waste time asking for the taxi-meter to be turned on; it is always "broken" or fails to take account of the last three devaluations.

Back in the East that likes to think of itself as the new West, currency constitutes about the only resistance to change – the local equivalents of the save-the-pound campaign. With the kroon, lat and zloty having achieved respectability only in the past decade, there is a reluctance to part from them so soon. One Latvian correspondent wrote to The Baltic Times to explain how lat coins saved from the 1920s "sat close to my heart" throughout the Soviet occupation and would again do so if the euro is introduced.

Has any country found a middle way between destroying the Soviet past and refusing to leave it? Yes, Kyrgyzstan. Its embassy in London is around the corner from the Lithuanian one, but like Downing Street, it prides itself on a single entrance both for presidents and for backpackers seeking visas. The staff are rather embarrassed that visas are still necessary and hope for abolition very soon for British passport holders. The country sells itself to business and potential tourists as the Switzerland of Central Asia. This is a very apt description. The government is not ashamed to have an economic role; nobody asks why their neighbour is well-off; foreigners can never name the prime minister; and the quality of the coffee is excellent.