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."
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."