The foreign ministers of France and Germany, Alain Juppé and Guido Westerwelle have proposed to their European colleagues that the EU institute visa-free access for Russian travelers immediately.
Critics of this approach insist (amongst many other arguments) that post-Soviet countries will take this as placing the interests of Russia well ahead of others such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldava. They also point out that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev will get undue credit for this undeserved gift.
Moscow however has placed the issue as a top foreign policy priority and the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has recently hinted that a breakthrough is imminent. A Russia-EU summit convening in December is expected to advance the process. The two sides will have to reach agreement in four basic areas: biometric passports, dealing with illegal immigration, countering organized crime and terrorism and the abolition of registration for citizens of EU countries visiting Russia. The agreement would include only those EU members belonging to the Schengen area and separate agreements would have to be signed with Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus (not part of the Schengen agreement) as well as Switzerland, Iceland and Norway (not members of the EU).
Russia currently points out that as of August it has visa-free or visa-on-arrival agreements with a total of 95 countries. From the list it’s apparent that most of these countries are in South America, the southern part of the former USSR in Africa and South East Asia, the majority being third world states. One could also say that many of these states do not put great effort in honouring human rights nor the democratic process.
In spite of the enthusiasm of some EU members to proceed at speed, skeptics outline several areas of concern to Europeans. Moscow is seen to be exploiting the fragility of European unity and internal political conflicts by diverting attention from more important issues. One is the ongoing talks on trade partnerships that seem to have no end in sight. Another crucial area of negotiations is the issue of energy. A third is the abstruse notion of Moscow’s eliminating an effective political weapon from the EU’s arsenal – the tantalizing possibility of the EU using its visa-free trump card in any tough bargaining with Russia.
Skeptics also blame Europe for not understanding how relations with Russia should develop. One the one hand it’s obvious that the absence of the rule of law and burgeoning authoritarianism in Russia are dangerous for Europe. At the same time it’s taken as a possibility by the EU leadership that some undefined well-intentioned miracle will occur in Russia.
Critics bluntly warn of a sharp rise in criminality and illegal immigration. They also insist on candidness and honesty: visa-free travel between the EU and Russia will be possible only if the latter embarks on a true course of modernization and adheres authentically to rule of law. The technical aspects of implementing a visa-free travel policy is of secondary importance.
Opponents of imminent visa-free travel for Russians also insist that Russians already have relatively easy travel access to European countries. Through the Schengen visa they can move practically visa-free between most of Europe and a new policy would not dramatically boost reciprocal tourism and trade as Moscow has claimed. Thus one cannot easily dismiss visa-free detractors who see the abolishing of visa requirements for Russian citizens as a substantial political coup for the Putin-Medvedev team and the elimination of a solid bargaining chip for the EU in any future negotiations with Moscow.
Visa-free travel for Russians into Europe, a pricey bargaining tool or friendly gesture?