Visa-free travel on hold

  • 2010-12-08
  • By Ella Karapetyan

OPEN DOORS: Visa-free travel would be a gain for Russia’s opposition, says Lev Ponomaryov.

TALLINN -  At a European Union-Russian summit in Rostov at the beginning of June this year, EU leaders did not make any promises on the easing of visa requirements for Russian travelers. In spite of this, Moscow is still continuing to strive for establishment of a visa-free arrangement with the EU. Russians point out that it would be similar to the procedures in place between the EU and some Balkan countries and which the EU is negotiating currently with Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, speaking in an interview with Euronews, said he believes Russia would have to fulfill all the conditions before it can establish a visa-free arrangement with the EU. “Of course, Russia wants to have visa freedom with the whole European Union, but first they have to fulfill certain criteria,” he said. The prime minister said Russian authorities would have to take back all Russian citizens living illegally in the EU, and then issue an international passport to all Russian citizens, many of whom do not currently have them.

Ansip also said Russia would have to abolish its long-held policy of requiring all foreign travelers to register their visas with local migration authorities upon arrival, a practice not required of Russians visiting the EU. “It’s not normal when EU citizens have to register in [every town] when they travel in Russia,” he said.

The prime minister’s comments were similar to ones he made in an interview in May, just after Russia presented its plan on the introduction of visa-free travel at the Russia-EU Summit in Rostov-On-Don.
Speaking on Russian television in recent days, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had still not received any EU reaction to the plan, but that he expects a response by early December.

Lev Ponomaryov, one of Russia’s most prominent human rights and civil society activists, has expressed his support for visa-free travel between the EU and Russia, saying it would be a great victory for the democrats and opposition in his country. Speaking at a seminar entitled “Russian Voices” in Tallinn on Dec. 1, the leader of the For Human Rights movement said that the visa question was one of the few issues where he agreed with Dmitry Medvedev, current president of Russia, as well as Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister of Russia.

“Of course I understand that Europeans are afraid of it. But I think that it’s a very important step for the future of Russia, though I don’t know why the Russian government is insisting on it,” he said. “Maybe there’s something dangerous behind it but I think that the resulting gain will be amazing for Russians, Russian democrats and the opposition. It seems to me that the sooner we change the visa regime, the better.” 

Ponomarev agreed with skeptics in the audience who said that before the visa system can be liberalized, Russia has to ease current restrictions on foreigners’ movements within the country. “There are already changes in that direction,” he said.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet considers that the EU-Russia visa dialogue should continue, but that all the conditions must be fulfilled before implementing visa freedom. “It is also important for the European Union to emphasize respect for Georgia’s territorial integrity and encourage Russia to do more to resolve the Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts,” said Paet. “Estonia also feels it is important for Russia to join the World Trade Organization,” added the foreign minister.

The minister noted that it is important to do away with obstacles in crossing the European Union-Russia border. “Queues that stretch on for hours absolutely do not fit into the context of the European Union and Russia’s increasingly close co-operation,” he says.

The chair of Estonia’s parliamentary foreign relations committee, Marko Mihkelson states: “I consider it unlikely the EU will strike a visa free agreement with a country that has left unsolved its border problems with an EU member state. Russia places visa free travel as its most urgent political question to be resolved with the EU, but is not willing to fulfill the technical obligations required in having visa free access to the visa free Schengen treaty countries. Estonia in principle supports a visa free regime. It’ll boost trade ties and personal contacts between people,” he says.

“Russia should not expect a quick transition to a visa-free regime with the EU,” the deputy head of the Delegation of the European Union to Russia says. He considers that there will not be a consensus on the visa abolishment agreement with Russia straight away; it has to be a step by step approach.

Vladimir Tsizov, the Russian permanent representative to the EU, remarked that the EU should have no more concerns about Russian citizens than they now have about Balkan visitors. The Russians currently enjoy visa-free travel to most Latin American countries and Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Israel and Turkey.