Krzysztof Mrozek from the Operational Programme “Open Europe” at the Stefan Batory Foundation (Warsaw, Poland), member of the Forum’s Visa Project Expert Group, reflects on questions of visa liberalisation between Russia and the European Union:
Visas are one of the most visible obstacles in travelling from Russia to the European Union. Therefore, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum runs a Visa Project Expert Group aimed at providing expertise on visa issues. A second report, describing EU-Russia visa relations after outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, has been published lately.
Lifting visa obligation is a sign of fulfilment of strict demands by the European Unionin the respective country. So far, the citizens of nearly 100 non-EU countries need visas to enter the European Union. As relations of the country with the EU are improving and intensifying, Brussels may decide on signing of a visa facilitation agreement, reducing a cost of the visa, or entitling some social/professional groups to obtain multiple visas free of charge. Afterwards, if the visa facilitation works properly, a visa liberalisation may start. In this process, a country receives (or negotiates with the EU) a list of reforms to be performed, before visa waiver can be introduced.
Visa liberalisation is both a technical (assessment of implementation of reforms) and political (decisions by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union) process. On the one hand, it ensures EU member states that a country granted with a visa waiver is a reliable partner, able to control migration into and outside its territory, properly managing personal data, not corrupted, etc. On the other hand, a process itself, thanks to its strong conditionality (only after implementation of reforms, visa liberalisation becomes possible) encourages related countries to introduce systemic reforms, not likely to be performed otherwise in the nearest future.
Eastern Neighbours – State of the Play
So far, when considering Eastern neighbours of the EU, the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) and Russia, only Belarus has neither visa facilitation nor visa liberalisation process on-going. Armenia and Azerbaijan have a package of visa facilitation and readmission agreements signed with the EU. Georgia and Ukraine for several years have been implementing – along with visa facilitation -reforms listed by the EU. Moldova, the frontrunner of visa liberalisation, has had a visa-free regime with the EU since 28 April 2014.
As concluded by the authors of a report on the state of play in visa relations between the EU and Russia after the Ukrainian crisis, Russia has always required an approach, which is different from that to the Eastern Partnership countries, and this was the case with visa liberalisation as well. Moscow rejected the list of reforms to be forwarded by the European Union, unlike Moldova, Ukraine, or Georgia, and demanded an intergovernmental agreement. This document was finally signed in December 2011 and got the Title “Common Steps towards Visa-Free Short-Term Travel of Russian and EU Citizens”. The document for a long time had not been made public, and when civil society in the end succeeded to disclose it, it appeared to be similar to Visa Liberalisation Action Plans in its form. It is divided into four policy areas covering security of documents, migration/border management, public order, and security and external relations. However, unlike VLAPs, ”Common Steps…” foresee not only reciprocity (EU may assess Russia’s preparations, Russia may assess those of the EU) but it is much more vague than VLAPs, especially when it comes to the issue of human rights protection.
Nevertheless, following the events in Crimea, negotiations on amendments to the Visa Facilitation Agreement, along with visa liberalisation process, were put on hold with no chance to be re-launched in the nearest future. As mentioned above, visa liberalisation is meant for countries, which implemented required reforms. The Russia-EU relations have lately deteriorated dramatically. The Kremlin has also presented a very selective approach towards implementation of the “Common Steps…” In particular, it is not eager to improve human rights protection system, introduce international standards of processing of personal data, etc.
How Russia Can Benefit from Visa Liberalisation
Primarily these are not Russian authorities but Russian citizens, who would benefit from visa facilitation and liberalisation, if visa talks are resumed. Reforms envisaged by the “Common Steps…” would contribute to the situation of citizens in terms of human rights protection, while easier cross-border movement would help, eg, to counteract aggressive propaganda in the Russian media. Furthermore, visa-free regimes help to fight stereotypes.
Representatives of Russian authorities, blamed for aggressive, anti-Western policy, either are blacklisted, ie they cannot enter the EU with or without visa, or travel with diplomatic passports and don’t need visas. Visa liberalisation would have no impact on situation of Russian elites but it will have positive impact on oppressed civil society and political opposition.
Unfortunately, resuming of visa liberalisation negotiations between the EU and Russia seems impossible, until Ukrainian crisis is resolved. It should be highlighted, however, that in the existing legal framework, consulates of EU member states are entitled to issue long-term, multiple entry visas free of charge to some groups of Russian citizens, including civil society activists. Once it becomes a usual practice, this can be considered as a gesture of support.
Visa liberalisation process experiences troubles not only in case of Russia: Announcing visa waiver for Georgia and Ukraine was expected by some actors as early as at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May 2015. Unfortunately, reports by the European Commission on the progress of these two countries in implementation of reforms published on the eve of the Summit showed that not all benchmarks from the list of reforms were fulfilled and therefore no decision on waiving visa obligation could have been made. On the other hand, EU shows its commitment to VLAPs and pushes forward visa facilitation or liberalisation, when a country is considered prepared. In Riga, both sides, the EU and the Eastern Partnership declared their willingness to liberalise visa regime as fast as possible and it is likely that respective decisions will be able to enter into force by mid-2016.
 In case of the Eastern Partnership countries, these were Visa Liberalisation Action Plans (VLAPs) delivered by the European Commission to the state authorities. In case of Russia, it is the bilateral agreement “Common Steps Towards Visa-Free Short-Term Travel of Russian and EU Citizens”
 For more information see: https://www.batory.org.pl/upload/files/Programy%20operacyjne/Otwarta%20Europa/Moldova%20success%20story%20-%20policy%20paper%20-%20SBF%20IWP.pdf