RIGA - An understanding of the specifics of Russia's neighboring countries in terms of visas has been achieved at the European level, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics (New Unity) said during a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Wednesday.
He pointed out that at the informal meeting there was a broad discussion on the visa policy regarding Russia, which also contributed to a common understanding that it is necessary to stop the visa facilitation agreement between the EU and Russia, which means a much more complicated process of obtaining long-term visas.
"This indicates a change in the EU's visa policy and can be seen as a step forward. We agreed that the countries bordering Russia and are having a large influx of Russian citizens, taking into account security aspects, could set entry and border crossing bans based on the Schengen code," Rinkevics said.
He noted that Latvia, together with its Baltic colleagues and other countries that have a border with Russia, will synchronize the decisions and the time of their entry into force, however, this will not happen in one day. It was also agreed at the meeting that work should continue to decide what to do with the 12 million valid EU visas issued to Russian citizens.
"It's not like these visas can be revoked in one decision. It's not legally or technically possible. Also, not all of those 12 million are revocable. We still have to work on that to decide what to do with them, but I think , progress has been made in the negotiations," said the foreign minister.
As reported, EU foreign ministers on Wednesday agreed to suspend a 2007 visa facilitation deal with Russia but stopped short of a wider visa ban as requested by some member states.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the ministers had agreed that relations with Moscow "cannot be business as usual" and the agreement should be "fully suspended".
Following the informal meeting in Prague, he said this would make it "more difficult" and "longer" for Russian nationals to get visas.
"It will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states," he said.
In a concession to eastern EU members who had pushed for a tougher approach, Borrell said that countries bordering Russia "can take measures at a national level to restrict entry into the European Union".
But he said any measures would have to conform with rules for the EU's Schengen common travel zone and he emphasized it was important that members of Russian civil society should continue to be able to travel to the EU.
Ahead of the meeting, Poland and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had said they were considering barring Russian travelers if the EU as a whole failed to do so.
In a joint statement obtained by AFP, the four countries had said that suspending the visa facilitation agreement was "a necessary first step".
"But we need (to) drastically limit the number of visas issued, above all tourist visas, to decrease the flow of Russian citizens into the European Union and the Schengen area," they added.
They said the move should contain exceptions "for dissidents as well as other humanitarian cases".
"Until such measures are in place on the EU level, we... will consider introducing on the national level temporary measures of visa ban, or restricting border crossing for Russian citizens holding EU visas," reads the statement written in English.