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Lines Swell at Embassy in Moscow, but Cause in Increase in Visa Fee

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Long lines sprouted outside the Israeli Embassy here when it reopened last week after the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

It looked like a return to the scene two years ago, when 15,000 or more Soviet Jews were leaving for Israel every month.

But in reality, the lines had less to do with a surge in emigration requests than with a sudden increase of a different kind: Inflation had struck at the embassy’s consular desk, as it has lately everywhere else in the former Soviet Union.

Effective Oct. 1, the Israeli Embassy raised its visa fee more than sixfold, from 400 rubles to 2,500 rubles.

Translated into dollars, the increase seems trivial — from about $2 to $13. But for locals, the higher fee represents roughly a quarter of the average monthly wage.

As a result, hundreds of would-be travelers sought to get their applications in before the price hike.

Those waiting on line were not prospective immigrants, who get Israeli visas free of charge.

“They’re tourists, people visiting their relatives, businessmen, athletes, artists, scientists, what have you,” said Maya Gal, head of the consular section.

“Israel is a very popular destination. Everybody wants to go,” said Gal, who estimated the number of non-immigrant visas at 1,200 a week.

A ticket to Israel on Aeroflot, the ex-Soviet state airline, or on a charter flight, can cost as little as $350, far less than a ticket to New York or European destinations.

Many ex-Soviets travel on tickets paid for by foreign organizations or state bodies, leaving the traveler to pay for incidental expenses such as visa fees.

Gal denied that the runaway local inflation was responsible for the increase. “The fee for an Israeli visa is $13 everywhere in the world for those who need visas. We just brought our fee in line with Israeli consulates everywhere else,” Gal explained.

But as Oct. 1 dawned, the line of visa applicants evaporated — and the ruble slipped from 192 rubles to the dollar, when the hike was announced, to 309, making the new fee already out of sync with that in other capitals.

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