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EU: Analysts Say Russia Needs Reforms Before It Can Win Visa Concessions

In a message to the European Commission last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged European leaders to consider lifting visa requirements for Russian citizens. But analysts say visa requirements will be lifted only after a decade or more, and only if Russia shows substantial progress with reforms. RFE/RL reports on the challenges facing Russia as it pushes for visa-free status.

Prague, 3 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to receive an affirmative answer to his proposal last week that the European Union lift its visa requirements for Russian citizens. Although the EU has yet to make an official response, member state Sweden has already called Putin's proposal unacceptable.

Analysts say the Russian president is attempting to find a solution to the thorny issue of Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave whose residents will be subject to a stringent visa regime once their immediate neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, join the EU in 2004.

Russia has objected to the EU expectation that Kaliningraders will need a visa to travel to Russia proper, saying such a regime is unfair and prohibitively expensive. Russia's special envoy to the exclave, Dmitrii Rogozin, yesterday asked EU officials to consider a compromise proposal that would allow Kaliningrad residents to travel through Lithuania to Russia without a transit visa for the first few years following expansion.

But the EU is unlikely to accept such a solution. Putin's proposal last week, which would solve the Kaliningrad issue by lifting visa requirements for all Russian citizens, is even less likely to be considered. Analysts say that realistically, it may be a decade or more before Russians will be free to travel to the EU without visas, and only if Russia makes headway with reforms.

Marius Vahl is a political analyst for the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. He said Russia needs to show a commitment to improving border control and reducing criminal activity before the EU will consider lifting its visa regime. Moreover, he said, the country's ailing economy currently leaves the EU vulnerable to illegal migration as people flow west in search of economic opportunity. "[The EU] is concerned that if Russians were allowed to travel without visas to the EU, they would essentially become economic immigrants and wouldn't leave again. That's one reason [the EU is not likely to lift the visa regime]. [The other is] the fear of crime coming from Russia or through Russia -- more so coming through Russia. And in general, there are difficulties in controlling its extremely long border," Vahl said.

Jakub Swiecicki, a senior analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, echoed Vahl's remark. He said the EU is concerned that lifting Russia's visa regime will open the border to all the countries of the former Soviet Union. "Russia is a very big country. Russia does not have very well-controlled borders with countries like, let's say, Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia, and so on. And Russia has no readmission agreement [an agreement on the expulsion of third-country nationals] with the European Union," Swiecicki said.

Moreover, Swiecicki said, the European Union is dealing with an increase in overall anti-immigration sentiment in a number of its member states. "In the European Union, there are also some hindrances right now. I mean the sentiments, the political sentiments, like in France, Holland, Austria, and other countries, are not very favorable for [immigration]," Swiecicki said.

Swiecicki said many people in countries like France and Austria are concerned about the potential influx of immigrants as the EU expands its borders farther east. The EU's overriding priority in the time remaining before the 2004 expansion is securing the eastern borders of future members like Poland, Lithuania, and Slovakia, which neighbor Russia, Belarus, or Ukraine.

Timofei Bordachev is an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He told RFE/RL that any attempts by Russia to solve the visa issue are pointless before EU expansion. He said that in the meantime, Russia should concentrate instead on improving its economic relations with the EU. "Substantial changes should be made in the free movement of capital between Russia and the EU. Only after that will it be possible to speak about the free movement of people and workers. Nonvisa travel is not just a simple matter of not having visas anymore. It means providing definite social guarantees, definite cooperation in legal matters, and law-enforcement matters," Bordachev said.

Bordachev said Russia should also foster a more welcoming atmosphere for European investors. He said Russian restrictions on the percentage of shares foreign investors can own in Russian banks and insurance companies continue to hamper bilateral economic cooperation.

Bordachev added, however, that Putin did not likely make his visa proposal in the expectation that it would be accepted. He said that by focusing on the broader issue of the EU-Russia visa regime, Putin is looking to retreat from the Kaliningrad issue without losing face. "No doubt, it is an attempt to move relations with the EU from the state of scandal surrounding the problem of Kaliningrad to a long-term, slow process of negotiations on the problem of nonvisa status [for all Russian citizens], which can drag on for years," Bordachev said.

Andrei Piontkovskii, head of the Moscow-based Strategic Research Center think tank, agrees. He said Putin's proposal is mainly meant to placate the Russian public, which sees itself on the losing end of visa negotiations with the EU. Piontkovskii added, however, that Putin's proposal isn't dead yet. It is still due to be discussed at future EU-Russia summits and will enable Putin to demonstrate to the public that some progress is being made in visa negotiations. "[Putin will be able to say,] 'Yes, there will be definite problems [in relations with the EU], but we are moving toward a common nonvisa space, and not only for the residents of Kaliningrad but for all Russian citizens.' And that is the only way you can rationally explain [Putin's] proposal," Piontkovskii said.

Piontkovskii added that many Russians, while interested in seeing the Kaliningrad issue resolved, do not want to see it receive special visa status. He said Russians fear such a move would encourage separatism in the exclave.