Members of the Steering Committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (CSF) Stefan Melle (Berlin) and Yuri Dzhibladze (Moscow) presented to the media a policy brief on the visa issues which had been adopted the day before by the CSF Steering Committee and submitted to the leadership of the European Union and the Russian Federation. The 5-page document contains civil society perspective on the current stage of the EU-Russia dialogue on facilitation and liberalisation of the visa regime as well as concrete recommendations to decision-makers and participants in the negotiations. 

CSF representatives stressed out that effective facilitation of the visa regime between Russia and the EU and energetic progress towards a visa free agreement are of outmost importance for public interests. Despite of the progress made in the recent years, the existing visa regime between the EU and Russia is still a huge barrier for human contacts as well as civil society, business, scientific, and cultural cooperation. "The more cooperation and exchange between people there are, the closer Russia and the European Union will come", says Stefan Melle. 

The CSF recommendations come very timely: a window of opportunity has recently opened up after a long standstill in negotiations. The negotiation process was reactivated in March, and active efforts are under way now to prepare a new EU-Russia Agreement on visa facilitation which will amend the existing agreement from 2006. This may happen as soon as in June at the EU-Russia Summit in Yekaterinburg. "We hope," says Yuri Dzhibladze, "that those responsible for elaboration of positions and making decisions on both sides will listen to the voice of civil society and take the expert proposals made by the Forum into account." 

The recommendations presented include a number of provisions that the CSF considers essential to be included into the text of the negotiated Agreement. In particular, this is expansion of the number of categories of people who would benefit from the facilitated visa regime. The Forum proposes to add the following categories: representatives of civil society organisations, participants of youth exchange programmes, municipal exchange programmes and projects of cross-border cooperation, professionals participating in international exhibitions, conferences and similar events, journalists and technical crews accompanying them, people travelling for medical purposes and persons accompanying them, representatives of religious communities, and close relatives of individuals legally residing in the EU or Russia. It is of utmost importance, said the press-conference participants, that amendments made to the Agreement are not limited to the improvement of the situation of a privileged group of service passport holders but are aimed at protecting interests of ordinary citizens. 

Other recommendations of the Forum which could be implemented already now, include a shorter list of documents required for visa applications, a significantly higher proportion of long term, 3-5 year multiple-entry visa for persons with a positive visa history, better provision of information to the citizens on both sides on their rights, benefits and obligations in the framework of the existing legislation and the Agreement, an effective realisation of the right to an appeal against visa refusals on the basis of short, accessible and simple procedures, an improvement of standards of work of the visa processing centres, limitation of the fees for their services, and much more. 

The speakers pointed out that it has been already 10 years since the establishment of a visa-free regime was identified by the two sides as a long-term goal. The Civil Society Forum considers it is high time to view the establishment of a visa-free regime as a mid-term or even a short-term goal, and make it a priority in the relationship between the European Union and Russia. Moreover, the dialogue on the facilitation and liberalisation of the visa regime should be as transparent and accountable to the public as possible; otherwise society will have no chance to influence a process which is of outmost importance for millions of people. Stefan Melle said it would be appropriate to publish the draft text of a new Agreement before it is signed in order to give way to a public discussion and making additional proposals. It is important to synchronise the process of facilitation and liberalisation of the visa regime between the European Union and Russia with such a process between the European Union and the countries of the Eastern Partnership to prevent the emergence of new dividing lines on the European Continent.

The document proposes a number of steps that should pave the way for a complete abolition of visas. These include the abolition of the registration of foreigners after their arrival (in Russia as well as in the EU Member States that still uphold this requirement); the transition to issuance of Russian visas which are valid for the country as a whole rather than for certain cities, as well as an introduction of an online system of applying for and issuing of visas without the need for an applicant to attend a consulate or a visa handling centre in person. Yuri Dzhibladze emphasized the principal position of the Forum that it is essential to put an end to the practice of refusing visas to NGO representatives or journalists critical of government policies, and compiling “black lists” of such persons. Before these practices are discontinued it is essential to guarantee the right of these people to information on the reasons of a ban of entry as well as their right to appeal. 

In autumn, CSF plans to issue a detailed report on the visa issues based on independent research of the Forum’s Expert Group on the Visa Issues.

For the briefing paper of the CSF Steering Committee on the visa issues, please click here.
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