If there is one priority for talks between the European Union and Russia, when both sides seem unable to agree on almost anything, it should be the restoration of visa dialogue. This is one of the few issues where decision-making competences reside within the EU. Hurdles in obtaining visas, often seen as a technicality, are the barometer that common people use to assess relations with foreign states. For most, a visa is synonymous with a short-period entry document without work permission. I will use this narrow definition here. Lengthy procedures for other types of travel permits are met with more understanding than the need to hang around consulates and visa centres to spend just a couple of days abroad.
While migration rules are often based on reciprocity, governments are getting increasingly creative with their visa requirements. For security or political reasons, visas may become more expensive and procedures more complicated. Applicants complain that visa practices of many countries are over-bureaucratised, clumsy, obscure and time-consuming. There is a growing appetite therefore for liberalisation and/or digitalisation to reduce red tape, boost tourism and increase travellers’ convenience.
The EU is working to introduce the “Smart Borders” concept, which may, among other things, finally free foreign passports from rubber stamps that fill the pages of frequent travellers. The Schengen zone is visa free for Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. This follows the example of the Western Balkans, much of the Americas and a few other corners of the world. For EU citizens, Russia, China, some parts of Africa and Asia represent the exceptions to what is otherwise a visa-free world (although the citizens of five EU countries still do not have the visa waiver from the U.S.).
During the 2018 football World Cup, Russia introduced Fan IDs that worked as a visa substitute for applicants until the year’s end. Since 2018, Russia has also been offering an e-visa procedure for citizens of 18 countries (though none from the West) entering through selected checkpoints and airports in the Russian Far East. Moscow and Saint Petersburg might be added to the e-visa areas in the future. There is also a limited 72-hours visa-free access for cruise ships and ferries. The options for Russian citizens to avoid standard visa procedures beyond the post-Soviet space have also increased, and now include Latin America, South-East Asia, South Korea, Israel and several other countries.
Facilitation got stuck
Since 2006, EU and Russia citizens have benefited from a visa-facilitation agreement that allows multiple entry long-term visas for categories of traveller who previously travelled between the EU and Russia. In reality, the practice of issuing multiple entry visas varies from one EU member state to the other, and remains limited on the Russian side.
For years, Russia and the EU discussed the possibility of visa-free travel. Moscow maintained that it was ready to allow visa-free travel “tomorrow” but that it expected reciprocity from the EU. During the course of negotiations, it was alleged that the Russian government was only willing to allow visa-free travel for holders of “service passports” – meaning a limited scope of public servants – rather than for all Russian citizens. This was not the case. Service passports were discussed as only one of the steps in visa facilitation.
Given the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, visa-free travel remains unlikely in the coming years. Despite this, further simplification of procedures and a broader spread of multiple-entry long-term visas would be a sensible measure. This would require the resumption of the visa dialogue suspended by the EU in 2014 as part of the initial sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
Is there a chance?
Five years on, disagreements over Ukraine remain far from resolved. And yet, the EU was not meant to create any new impediments for Russians travelling to the West. On the contrary, the EU politicians argued repeatedly that people-to-people communication was essential and should be supported. Allowing an exception from the sanctions regime specifically for the resumption of visa dialogue would support this principle.
The road ahead is not easy however. Even before the Ukraine crisis one could see a growing lack of trust between Russia and the West that did not help any negotiations, including those on visa issues. Travel bans were used as a political tool against public personalities and scholars. Crimea, and post-Soviet conflict zones are some of the most intractable matters, since the EU disputes the validity of Russian passports issued for these areas. The EU will inevitably raise questions regarding the human rights and security situation in the North Caucasus. This makes negotiations all the more necessary. Even small steps that support freedom of movement and help people in their everyday lives should be encouraged.
Relations between the EU and Russia are unlikely to improve any time soon to allow for the signature and ratification of new legally binding agreements. Nevertheless, the visa dialogue could adopt the “OSCE method”, with political commitments, parallel steps by both sides to respect these commitments, and progress reviewed together. Bigger issues, including those related to the actual OSCE principles, will not be easily resolved but the intensified people-to-people communication might in the longer term help the EU, Russia, and their common neighbours.
The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.