Removal of visa barriers would allow Russia and EU to develop humanitarian and economic ties

December 3, 2013 3:58 pm

Presidents of the Republic of Korea and Russia signed the bilateral agreement on the mutual abolition of visa requirements on 13 November 2013 in the framework of the official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Seoul. This agreement applies to people traveling for business, tourist and private purposes, as well as to participants of cultural, scientific and sporting events. It is expected that the changes will take effect from next year and will help to increase the flow of tourists, further strengthen business ties and deepen the two countries’ cooperation in various fields.

Meanwhile, Russian citizens can already benefit from visa-free travel to more than 60 destinations, including countries such as Argentina, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Israel, Cuba, Peru, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, the Philippines, Ecuador, Jamaica, and most of the states of the former USSR.

Euro-Russian-relationsFurthermore, holders of Russian citizenship can get visas of nearly 50 countries at the border. These states include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Uganda, Ethiopia and others.

Under a number of conditions, facilitated visa regime for Russians is provided by the countries such as Bulgaria, Albania, Qatar, China, Liberia. With a minimal set of documents Russians can get a visa to Bahrain, Mexico, Mongolia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Niger, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Singapore and Sri Lanka, and in many of these countries the procedure may be carried out online.

Moreover, Russia has a valid agreement on local border traffic with Latvia, Poland and Norway, allowing residents of border areas to receive special permission to visit certain territories of neighboring countries without visas.

According to some observers, visa-fee regime or simplification of visa requirements stimulates socio-cultural contacts, is favorable for economic co-operation between the countries and contributes to the development of public diplomacy, which makes a significant contribution to strengthening international understanding.

Korean scholar Giwon Kwon noted in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews” that the visa-free agreement signed between Moscow and Seoul is “very good choice.”

“It is the result of summit of two presidents and it means that they become friendlier,” he stressed.

According to him, the amount of export and import between the two countries will be increasing, and the people of Russia and South Korea will be able to cooperate with each other more positively.

Meanwhile, future visa relations between Russia and the European Union, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians, remain uncertain.

Currently Russian tourists have to obtain a visa before entering the EU states; besides, some experts believe that a new definition of the notion of short stay of non-EU citizens in the Schengen area introduced by the amendment of the Schengen Borders Code on 18 October 2013 may further complicate the procedure of getting visa.

In accordance with the new rule, a short stay is defined as “intended stays on the territory of the Member States of a duration of no more than 90 days in any 180-day period, which entails considering the 180-day period preceding each day of stay,” replacing the original “three months during the six months following the first entry.”

This new rule directly affects only those who travel to Europe quite often, for example, businessmen and foreign property owners, however, it can indirectly impact other categories of travelers who will have to endure the long queues at passport control because of the lengthy procedure of counting visa days. According to some observers, this may also affect the speed of processing visa applications at consulates.

Moreover, Russian tourist industry has already faced serious difficulties connected with the fact that some guides and coach drivers exceeded the cumulative 90 days limit of legal stay: as a result, several groups of ordinary tourists had to cancel their trip.

Commenting on the Russian-European cooperation on visa issues, President of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament Hannes Swoboda noted that visa liberalization facilitates people getting to know each other, which often leads to reducing tensions between countries.

“We as Socialists and Democrats therefore fully support visa liberalization, also to simplify access for business and investors on both sides, but especially for students and young workers,” the German politician said.

However, according to him, trust has not increased lately between Russia and the EU, despite the close cooperation on the Syrian chemical weapons file.

“I hope that successful Olympic Games in Sochi would give new impetus to improved relations and also facilitate the necessary further progress of visa liberalization,” he added.

Stefan Liebich, member of the Left Party (Die Linke) in German Parliament, also pointed to the benefits of the abolition of visa regime.

“We are stressing the importance for having the freedom of visa, at least we support the visa-liberalization as we regard the direct exchange between citizens of different states as a chance and not as a risk. Cultural, economic, political but also human relations can thereby be assuaged. This would be good for all sides,” he explained.

However, according to him, the circle of critics in the Bundestag fears a growth of crime or an inflow into the social system of Germany.

“I disagree with the first point as criminals always will find a way to misuse the system. The latter I disagree with as we need migration and we should be happy about everyone who wants to live and work in our country,” the politician noted.

visa barriers“Proposals in the Bundestag of our faction and of Buendnis 90/Die Gruenen with the aim to liberalize have been set on the agenda since June 27, 2013. The governmental faction and the SPD-faction declined them. We wished for a common initiative of all Members of the foreign committee. There was a big sympathy but in the end it failed due to internal politics of the CDU/CSU faction. I suspect that with a coalition of CDU, CSU and SPD, there will be no improvements since both of the coalition partners have not been known to be progressive. I feel very sorry about that,” Stefan Liebich added.

In turn, Peter Van Elsuwege, Professor of European Union law at University of Ghent, Belgium, noted that the potential abolition of visas between Russia and the EU could simultaneously lead to positive and negative results.

“Cancellation of the visa regime would be beneficial to stimulate people-to-people contacts. For instance, a growth in terms of tourism may be expected as well as increased economic interactions, cultural and educational exchanges. However, cancellation of the visa regime implies that countries give up an important instrument of migration control as well ex ante security checks about who is entering the territory,” the expert explained.

According to him, several EU officials in a personal conversation said that they fear for a multiplication of asylum requests from Russia if the current visa regime would be abolished – basing upon experience of the EU’s recent abolition of the visa regime with countries of the Western Balkans.

“In 2013, two important steps took place. First, the EU and Russia are about to finish negotiations on an updated visa facilitation agreement. In comparison, the updated agreement would extend the categories of beneficiaries of visa facilitations among others to representatives of civil society organizations, and a broader spectrum of family members. Long-term multiple-entry visas would be foreseen in more cases than under the present agreement and wider groups of visa applicants would benefit from visa fee waivers,” the analyst said.

In his opinion, the negotiations have not finished due to different visions on Russia’s request for visa free travel for service passport holders: the EU is reluctant to offer this benefit automatically to all service passport holders and currently negotiations regarding the concrete modalities on how to deal with this issue are still ongoing.

“I think it is realistic to expect that negotiations on this updated visa facilitation agreement will be finished by the end of this year (maybe on the occasion of the forthcoming December EU-Russia summit in Brussels). However, I am more pessimistic about the steps towards abolition of the visa regime. Progress has been made here as well regarding the preparations in the field of document security and migration control but several outstanding issues still need to be solved,” Peter Van Elsuwege added.

Arkady Moshes, head of the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood and Russia research program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, noted that facilitation of visa regime would provide a number of economic advantages for the Europeans.

“It is difficult to say how significant these benefits would be because the situation is very dynamic and depends not so much on the visa regime, but on the effective consumer demand. The numbers will be different depending on whether it is economic upswing or economic downturn in Russia,” the expert said.

At the same time, according to him, Moscow would not have any economic advantages because the main reason for the relatively low tourist flow to Russia is not the visa issue but infrastructural problems, inability of hotels to accommodate not very rich foreign guests and generally unfavorable tourism reputation of the country.

“It could be a political plus for the Russian leadership, proof of the ability to realize some major initiatives,” the analyst added.

He also noted that, according to some observers, massive increase in visa-free visits from Russia could worsen the crime situation.

“They are not necessarily talking about major organized crime. It may be a different kind of violations related to the large flows of people, such as non-compliance with the traffic rules in the border regions. Such effects are predictable and they are all the time discussed,” said Arkady Moshes.

Moreover, according to the expert, he does not expect successful completion of visa liberalization process between the EU and Russia in the near future.

“In my opinion, no significant steps were made in 2013. However, we are discussing two different things. Facilitation of the visa regime is a gradual, technical process, which is moving forward. It becomes easier to obtain visa for many categories of people; if this were not true, there would not be so many Russian tourists traveling across Europe. So, there is progress. However, if we talk about the abolition of visas, there is no significant progress and any steps forward are almost impossible. This is not just a technical or financial issue, it is not just about the security perception — it is a political issue as well. In order to discuss the abolition of visas in the foreseeable future, Russia would have to consider a number of comprehensive reforms, which, in my opinion, Moscow does not want to think about now,” the analyst concluded.

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