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Tightened Russian Visa Restrictions Frustrate Europeans

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. New visa laws came into effect when the two met in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. New visa laws came into effect when the two met in Moscow.
By Galina Stolyarova
ST. PETERSBURG -- After working in Russia for nearly a decade, Anna, a German businesswoman, says she has become accustomed to heavy-handed tactics. When negotiations fail, she says, Russians often show a tendency to resort to force to make their point.

This is what crossed her mind when the Russian government announced recently that it was severely tightening up visa regulations for German citizens. Since November 1, German visa applicants have been required to give proof of their willingness to return to their home country after their visit.

Would-be tourists will now be required to produce a bank statement or property deeds, while business visitors will need to provide their company's registration documents, as well as evidence from the firm showing their position and salary, and providing details of the purpose of their trip.

"Of course, this is unpleasant but it won't make me close my business," Anna, who declined to give her last name, says. "But if I was planning a holiday, I would probably reconsider. I would not want to get bogged down in a whole load of paperwork."

"The bare-knuckle policy is bad enough in everyday life but when this attitude becomes a state policy, it is a shame for the country," she adds.

The new rules, which came into effect while German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was visiting the Russian capital, came as Moscow's efforts to secure visa-free travel to the European Union for it citizens appear to have stalled, largely due to German opposition. Some observers have called the move a retaliation.

"The move was meant to disadvantage the Germans but unfortunately it is ultimately going to work against Russia," says Francesco Bigazzi, a retired Italian diplomat, and currently president of the association Viva Italia, which is involved in cultural cooperation between Italy and Russia.

Just what benefit Moscow can gain from the new policy, especially in the long term, is certainly questionable. Although the visa move was apparently meant as muscle-flexing, it was interpreted by some critics as a symptom of political impotence.

"Hasn't Russia been vigorously campaigning for a visa-free regime with the EU? The Kremlin has achieved nothing and has come up with this aggressive response," Bigazzi says. "Now the Kremlin is much further than it was from its goal. The Russian authorities were being self-indulgent in hitting out like this. This is regrettable."

Fears Of A Russian Wave

Moscow has been pushing strongly for the introduction of visa-free travel with the European Union for the last few years. These efforts have intensified since January, when Spain proposed getting rid of visas altogether.

However, reaching an agreement with the EU requires the consent of all its member states. And, while Russia has Spain and Italy on its side, Germany and France remain cool to the idea, citing what they see as the risk of illegal immigration.

"Both Germany and France have seen several waves of Russian immigration," explains Vera Obolenskaya, the director of ODI Voyage travel agency in St. Petersburg. "In these countries, Russia is still seen as a totalitarian regime, and in the eyes of German and French politician it would only be natural for any sane Russian to want to escape from an autocracy to a democratic country."

However, Bigazzi says the real reason why certain EU states refuse to go down the road of visa-free travel is not the fear of a "Russian wave."

"I know the statistics. The Russians who come here want to have a holiday and do some good shopping. Illegal immigration attempts are rare," he says. "What is a bit of a problem though, if visa-free travel does start, is Russia's loose borders with Central Asia and the Caucasus. And this is the issue on which Russia does not want to compromise. The Kremlin wants these borders loose to keep as much of those territories under control as it can manage."

In an official statement, posted on the website of the Russian Embassy in Berlin, the Foreign Ministry insisted that the new rules simply "adhere to the principle of reciprocity."

"Germany has one of the toughest visa policies among the 25 Schengen countries," says Vera Obolenskaya. " For example, they will request original documents, whereas most other consulates will accept a fax or an electronic document."

Mutual Grievances

Russians have long complained about the process of getting a visa to Germany and other EU countries, which many describe as humiliating.

"If you ask me, the new rules are only fair. In almost every EU consulate they treat Russian women with suspicion, as if we were all potential prostitutes," travel writer Irina Sidorenko says. "I go abroad almost every month, and I have seen enough of this nonsense.”

Some leading Russian cultural figures, including the opera diva Anna Netrebko, have resorted to dual citizenship to circumvent visa problems. Netrebko succeeded in gaining Austrian citizenship in 2006.

"I am a singer. I have an international audience, and I shouldn't be going through this humiliation, these endless applications for visas, and waiting for documents with a sinking heart," Netrebko says. "Sometimes, there would be just a couple of weeks remaining before my concerts in Western Europe, and I would still be waiting for a new visa, shaking with nerves."

Europeans have likewise complained about Russia's visa regulations.

Travel agent Irina Arsentieva says that over the past months she has been getting complaints from her French clients over troubles they've been having with the Russian Embassy in Paris. She says they complain it has tended to "complicate" the process of obtaining a visa.

A retired member of the French parliament recently spent several weeks trying to get a Russian visa. "The Russian Embassy would request more documents, then even more documents, and then they would lose them in the end I decided not to go at all," he recalls. "After all, it was supposed to be a vacation. It's not worth going if the visa issue becomes such a pain. In most countries I don't need a visa."

Despite the controversy, the deputy head of the Russian Tourism Industry Union, Sergei Korneyev, believes the new rules will not affect the flow of German tourists to Russia.

"The amount of German tourist visitors has been rather modest and rather stable, mainly because Russia is an expensive country to visit," he says. "The costs of flights and accommodation are higher than in most European cities, and, as far as the visa is concerned, what matters is that Russia requires a visa in principle. A couple more documents that one needs to show won't do devastating damage."
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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
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by: Mamuka
November 13, 2010 19:02
This is "reset" po-russki. No wonder they went nuts when Misha said he would allow visa-free travel for residents of the North Caucasus.

Dont worry Vova, NATO will still bend over forwards for you in Lisbon. And there will be no awkward moments in Astana at the OSCE summit (see the rferl.org article where ODIHR says, "its not up to us to say there was fraud).

Normalno!

by: Johann from: USA
November 13, 2010 19:17
More visas, the better. Europeans should get rid to Schengen altogether.
Visa free travelling over boarders means more criminal activity.
In Scandinavia, East Europeans are about half of the prison population.
I was born in Scandinavia and visit there frequently.

by: Anonymous
November 14, 2010 00:13
This is the usual and traditional European / Western

hypocrisy !

What we do is fully justified and arises from democracy

what they do
is just the usual attitude of Russian
to be arrogant

RECIPROCITY

this is the basis of any international report


And why Russians
should not be doing what we with them?

I have a friend married with an Ukrainian girl for many years

people absolutly ordinary and with no past to hide

They wanted to go for holiday to the Caribbean, I not remember where ,

and for go his wife needed a visa of transit in the U.S.

not a tourist visa , only transit !

But also this litle kind of visa they don't give them !


But we Westerners are so good and so different from those loud and aggressive Russians!
In Response

by: Anonymous
November 14, 2010 16:25
Democracy is just a red herring in this case. They don't want Central Asians and Caucasians in their countries, at the same time they want to be players in these regions. The US and UK behave similarly when they have major energy interests there. These countries are going to have to drop their borders and allow citizens of post-Soviet states to come in and work. With the exception of the Baltic states, the whole former Soviet Union depends on remittances from Russia for most of their economic activities.

by: Lee from: USA
November 15, 2010 07:14
It's exactly this sort of ham-fisted response is what kills Russia's reputation abroad. The world community won't stop fearing Russia or take it seriously, for that matter, until it learns to negotiate issues and not behave like a sullen teenage bully.

As the one commentator noted, Europe doesn't fear a wave of Russian immigrants, but waves of Central Asians and Caucasians. If Russians haven't noticed Europe is already trying to deal with a massive immigration problem and its not going well. Russia needs to tighten its own borders and then, maybe then, the EU might be willing to listen.

What I find it most amusing is to hear Russians complain about discriminatory visa regimes. Having lived in Uzbekistan I can attest to Russia's EXTREMELY discriminatory (and racist) visa regime for Central Asians. In fact, all of my Uzbek colleagues refuse to transit through Moscow due to the treatment they receive. Finally, from my own practical experience in traveling to and from Russia, I can verify the extremely bureaucratic nature of its visa regime. I always chuckle when having to register my visa and passport at each hotel or at the local police station if I stay with friends.

And to the comment of Germany requiring original documents I can assure you that all travelers who comes into country on a visa (some of my friends need them) have to provide ORIGINAL documents. That's just how the Germans are.

Russia needs to stop looking for conspiracies at every turn and look at itself with a little more honesty
In Response

by: CG_RJ
November 16, 2010 17:05
Dear Lee, you need to do your homework before spouting untrue statements on this board (not that RFERL ever bothered to check factual accuracy of any statement critical of Russia). Uzbek citizens DO NOT need visa to visit Russia, so your tale of "poor Uzbeks oppressed by vile Ruskie government" is exactly what I called it.
In Response

by: lee from: USA
November 17, 2010 07:20
CG RJ/Putin?
I said Uzbeks refuse to transit through Russia because the treatment they receive, not because of visas. Be a little more attentive. This board isn't Moscow, ya know?

Central Asians, like Russian journalists, have a bad habit of getting beaten up or coming up dead.
In Response

by: ni from: UK
November 17, 2010 12:35
You say - "I can attest to Russia's EXTREMELY discriminatory (and racist) visa regime for Central Asians." - there is a visa regime only for Turkmenistan.... the other Central Asian states do not need visas - even though I am sure they are not treated well in Ru...
In Response

by: CG_RJ from: Toronto, Canada
November 17, 2010 15:16
Dear Lee,

I believe in best in people, so I'm going to assume a honest failure of your memory and reading skills, as you've completely ignored in your reproach something that you wrote before, namely the following statement "Having lived in Uzbekistan I can attest to Russia's EXTREMELY discriminatory (and racist) visa regime for Central Asians." I'm not exactly sure what kind of visa regime which do not require visa you call "extremely racist". Could you please clarify?
Treatment of your Uzbek friends in hands of corrupt Russian police officers while they're visiting Russia is an issue completely separate from visa regime. And your "and you're lynching Blacks" response is all too typical in it's irrelevance and hatefulness.

by: Demyan from: London
November 15, 2010 14:41
I am with Putin and Co. on this one. These are the same requirements that German embassy presents to Russian visa applicants.

by: Mamuka
November 16, 2010 05:37
"Reciprocity" is a complex issue. Maybe Germans present demands for Russians coming to Germany. But there are many Russians who want to immigrate to Germany. How many Germans are likely to overstay their visa and take up residence in Russia?
In Response

by: Andy from: Moscow
November 21, 2010 18:58
Quite a number, by the way. I personally know two Germans who are illegally working in Moscow, not to mention other EU nations.

by: Sebastian from: Córdoba - Argentina
November 16, 2010 17:35
Come to Argentina. In two years you are Argentine Citizen and you won't need Visa to enter in Rusia ;-)

by: CG_RJ from: Toronto, ON, Canada
November 16, 2010 18:07
What's up with this "fear of Central Asians" anyway. Russia did not propose to dismantle border control on the Schengen border, not at all. Only ones with valid Russian passports would be allowed in, not the great unwashed masses of Georgians, Azeri and Kazakhs Europe is presumably scared of.
In Response

by: Andy from: Moscow
November 21, 2010 19:30
Unfortunately, in this issue, the EU has what to worry about.

Of course, Central Asians have nothing to do with the question. They're nationals of their respective nations and couldn't benefit from a supposed EU-RF visa abolishment agreement.

But there are the Chechens, Ingush, Dagestani and people from other problem-prone regions who, from the legal point of view, are RF nationals and bear Russian passports. Don't forget Abkhazians most of whom had to enter Russian citizenship in order to overcome blockade; their mentality is generally the same.

So, an imaginary visa abolishment would create crowds of those people seeking "asylum" (actually, a welfare) in the EU. No wonder the EU doesn't want them and therefore sabotages the talks without posing any requirements.

On the other hand, the EU nations naturalize lots of suspicious folks such as Pakistani, Turks etc. These would pose a risk of aggressive Islamism for Russia.

So I find it very unlikely that visa regime will be abolished; actually, I wouldn't like that. However, it is certain that continuing the current cretinous visa regime cannot be held anymore. I would like to see the visa regime of both sides become more alike to that of US: granting long-term (1 year to 5 year to eternal) multiple-entrance visas to persons who proved their trustworthiness.

Of course, all the nonsensical registrations have to be abolished or maximally simplified by both sides.

by: ni from: UK
November 17, 2010 12:08
1) CORRECTION: it is not true that a visa free regime needs the consent of all EU member states. It only needs qualified majority voting (cca 215 weighted votes out of 295 or so), minus UK and Ireland. Though the preference is of course for a consensus.

2) What the Russian are doing is stupid - it is bad for Russia. But to be frank what they do is to replicate what EU member states do. The 'toughneing' of the Russian visa regime - is a copy-paste from EU visa-practicies. I do not think thi is good for Russia, nor do I think it will work - but what the Ru are doing is adoting the worst of the existing European practices. So criticise the Russian, but take a look in the mirror as well.

3) EU does not implement the EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement fully.

4) Just FYI - the number of people claiming asylum in the EU: 1st place goes to Afghanistan with almost 21000 anually; 2nd place to Rusia with 20500 people or so; 3rd place Iraq.


by: Gusev from: Nestrov
November 21, 2010 12:39
Without getting rid of mafia and organizied crimes in Russia, the privilege of visa-free should not be easily given to Russian citizens. I do support the strict visa policy of Germany towards Russian citizens.
In Response

by: Andy from: Moscow
November 21, 2010 19:47
The "Russian mafia" is a well-known fake. Actually, any country does have organized crime, and neither Russia nor Germany is exception.

Albania is a much-much-much worse country when it comes to organized crime; still, the EU decided to lift the visa requirement for them, despite the fact that Albanians still need even airside-transit visas for the UK and Ireland.

There were articles comparing visa regime against Albanians with the Berlin wall. How could one figure that the question wasn't about ideology? No way.
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