Russia's announced intention to withdraw from the Bishkek Treaty that ensures visa-free travel for most CIS residents was advertised this week as a measure to control illegal immigration, drug trafficking and crime. But RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini says that Moscow's pursuit of possible visa relations with its more difficult CIS partners may indicate that the move is more a reflection of difficult internal CIS relations than a method of combating crime.
Moscow, 1 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Crime-fighting may only be the ostensible reason for Moscow's formal announcement yesterday (Thursday) that it will withdraw from the Bishkek agreement guaranteeing visa-free travel for citizens of nine of the 12 CIS nations. Many see the action as a means for Russia to exert future pressure on CIS members which it considers troublesome.
Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia did not sign the treaty in the Kyrgyz capital in 1992, although Georgia did sign it three years later. Kyiv and Baku have visa-free travel regimes with Russia on the base of bilateral agreements with Moscow. Turkmenistan left the treaty last year and now has a visa relation with Russia.
Russia's withdrawal from the treaty -- which may not take effect for two years -- now gives Moscow the freedom to impose or lift visa requirements with each CIS country separately, on the basis of bilateral treaties. And some observers in Moscow say that Russia' future visa requirements from CIS states could take a long time to establish.
According to official statements this week, Russia will leave the treaty within three months to combat what was called "international terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration." But again, analysts say, the tough-sounding words may be long in turning into action.
Anatoly Chekhoyev, a communist member of the State Duma's CIS Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL that he approves of the government's move and the crime-fighting motivations said to be behind it. But Chekhoyev also says that any new visa measures will take time to impose.
Russia still must officially notify the CIS executive secretary in Minsk of its withdrawal, and after that it will only go into effect 90 days later. Even more important, Chekhoyev says that the Duma must first approve the withdrawal. And, in a second stage, Russia will then have to negotiate bilateral treaties and get them ratified by Parliament.
The daily Niezavisimaya Gazeta said today that "Russia is now not ready to take the step" toward effective visa relations. The paper estimated that the withdrawal would take two years to come into full effect -- because, it said, Russia is in no hurry. Much still remains to be determined, the daily added: "It is unclear," it said, "how the borders will be reinforced, how much a visa-free regime would cost, how many new border crossing points will be necessary."
With all this in mind, Chekhoyev says that Moscow's withdrawal from the treaty is intended as a political move toward states perceived as "anti-Russian," notably Georgia and Ukraine. He argues that the imposition of a visa regime is meant to reflect more the state of bilateral relations than the dangers of cross-border crime.
"You have to impose order on the borders, but that doesn't mean Russia is leaving [the CIS], is pushing others away. On the contrary, Russia wants real friends. For them, the door stays wide open -- as the Russians always do for friends. But with those who don't want to be friends -- with those, we will live differently." Georgia is seen as a prime target of the action because of its public pro-NATO stance and because of Russian allegations that it allows supporters of Chechen rebels cross through Georgian territory.
Ukraine is torn between long-standing ties with Russia -- including a dependency on its natural gas --and playing the role of a buffer zone for western Europe and NATO. For other CIS members, says Chekhoyev, there should be no such problems. For example, he says, Moscow-friendly Kazakhstan is not likely to see visas imposed on its citizens travelling to Russia -- although Kazakhstan is a favored drug-trafficking route because of its 7,000 kilometers of largely unpatrolled border with Russia.
Konstantin Zatulin, director of the state-financed Institute for CIS Affairs, also believes that Moscow's withdrawal from the Bishkek treaty is above all a political act. He says it's aimed at regulating relations with so-called "difficult" countries whose populations are largely dependent on easy access to Russia's market for survival. Speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio yesterday, Zatulin noted that "terrorists never did and never would need visas."
On the other hand, a visa regime would hit hard at the economies and the lives of people in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Russia is the main market for fruit and vegetables from all three countries. In addition, according to the English-language daily Moscow Times, more than a million Azerbaijanis work in Russia and that their combined income is twice Baku's national budget.
Ukraine would also be strongly affected by the imposition of a Russian visa regime. A recent poll showed one-third of all Ukrainians claiming "close family ties" in Russia. In Ukraine's eastern and southern russified portions, the total was more than two-thirds. Almost half (42 percent) of all Ukrainians say they go to Russia regularly.
In his remarks to RFE/RL, Duma CIS committee chairman Chekhoyev implied that new visa regulations would constitute a potential tool for pressuring neighboring states. In the case of Georgia, he said, visa regulations could be lifted if it fulfilled certain conditions. They included, he noted:
"Revising its policy towards Russia [by] revising its policy towards NATO, for example. [Georgia should] determine its own strategic course. I distinguish between the Georgian people who are friendly toward Russia and the anti-Russian policy of the Georgian government."
Chekhoyev says that he hopes that simply the threat of a visa regime will exert enough pressure on "unfriendly" countries to persuade them to revise their foreign policies. But analyst Zatulin says that Russia's withdrawal from the Bishkek accord actually destroys the last hope of the CIS being a tool for integration.