A new law on a unified state demographic register passed by parliament on Oct.2 is set to bring Ukraine closer to a visa-free regime with the European Union.

Yet critics call on President Viktor Yanukovych to veto the law, which they say will unnecessarily cost the country millions of hryvnias for other types of identification cards. Privacy fears are also high. Some think the law cedes too much control of personal data to EDAPS, a controversial and privately owned document producer. The president has spoken out in support of the law, but had not announced a decision as of Oct. 18.

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Biometric passports are one of the conditions Ukraine has to fulfill in order to ease its visa requirements with the EU. However, the political union has had little to say about the law passed this month because the EU delegation was still waiting for details.

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Yet Ukrainian officials are full of praise for the legislation.

“I welcome this decision. We finally did it, and I think it should have been done much earlier, because it is the core of an action plan on visa liberalization that we are currently implementing,” Ukraine’s representative to the EU, Kostyantyn Yeliseyev, said on Oct.3.

Invented in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, biometric identification systems have been launched throughout the world, including Europe and most former Soviet states since 2006.

The new biometric passports will contain electronic chips with personal information including name, signature, photograph and a person’s fingerprints. National ID cards will be valid for 10 years and given to everybody at birth, rather than at age 16, as it is now. A unified state demographic register will be set up to store each citizen’s basic personal information, according to the law.

“Ukraine is fulfilling its European commitments with this law,” says Vasyl Hrytsak, a Party of Regions member and author of the law. “It’s finally becoming a civilized nation on the European and international stage.”

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But the law could also end up costing the country hundreds millions of dollars for other types of cards.

According to Hrytsak, an internal biometric ID card, which the law actually refers to as “passport,” will cost Hr 65 ($8) to produce, which means the state will have to spend about $320 million to provide all citizens with new ID cards. The old ones Ukrainians are using now will be still valid until the expiration date.

A passport for traveling abroad will cost about Hr 350-450 ($44-$55) to produce. However, to get one, Ukrainians will have to pay from own pockets.

“A foreign passport is an object of luxury for Ukrainians. About 70 percent of citizens would not like to have it and actually do not need it. Others will pay any price,” Hrytsak says.

Moreover, the law foresees that similar chip-based cards will replace social identity cards, migrant cards, sailor identity cards, drivers’ licenses and dozens of other identity documents.

“It’s absolutely clear that there is no need to produce dozens of IDs as all information can be stored on one chip and issuing one or two is enough,” says Ivan Presniakov, analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for Public Policy. “And these attempts to strip (huge amounts) from the state budget cause disapproval.”

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Experts say the law is lobbied by the consortium EDAPS, a privately owned monopoly in the printing industry, frequently described as taking part in non-transparent deals and winning state contracts on a non-competitive basis.

“One and the same company (EDAPS) will be doing it again without any competition,” says Viktor Chumak, department director at UIPP.

The EDAPS press service refused to comment on the law and its possible right to issue the passports if the law is signed. “We are not giving any official comments,” said Oleg Rudenko, deputy head of the press service. They also refused to comment on the ownership of the company, which is allegedly based abroad.

“The consortium is owned by people who no longer live in Ukraine,” Chumak says. “We even don’t know who is the final beneficiary of its corporate rights.”

While little is known about the ownership of the company its “permanent representative in parliament” is Hrytsak, according to Kyrylo Kulykov, a member of the opposition UDAR party and former head of Ukrainian bureau of Interpol.

On Oct. 15, Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights Valeriya Lutkovska asked Yanukovych to veto the bill and return it to parliament for revision. According to Lutkovska, the approved wording of the bill “does not comply with the Constitution of Ukraine and European standards in the sphere of personal data protection, and might infringe on human rights and freedom.”

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The law was also criticized by Oleksandr Hladun from the Institute for Demography and Social Studies. He said the adoption and introduction of the law on a unified demographic register threatens “to create a police state” in Ukraine, when any information can be collected about any person and used without the person’s knowledge.

Yet the author of the law is sure it will be signed.

“This law will be signed,” says Hrytsak. “And we have already told Europe that we will be ready to start issuing biometric passports on Jan. 1, 2013.”

Chumak says this law is a good example of the one spurred on by powerful lobbies which are going to benefit from it.

“The major interest (of Hrytsak) in this case is the money,” Chumak said.

Kyiv Post staff writer Anastasia Forina can be reached at [email protected]

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