Visa-free Travel between Russia and the European Union

We consider the issue of visa abolition for short-term trips by Russian Federation and European Union citizens to be one of priorities of our current relations with the EU. A breakthrough in this direction will be a serious achievement in our strategic partnership with the EU as well as a sound stimulus for developing economic, cultural, and humanitarian interrelations.

In fact, the work related to the final target, abolition of visas, was started in 2007, and part of the discussions about visa-free travel between Russia and the then European Community, when all aspects of visa-free procedures were discussed on the level of senior government officials and experts; issues under consideration included document security, control of illegal migration, re-admission, protecting the public order, law enforcement and legal cooperation, and creating a general positive atmosphere about the free travel of people across the boundaries in the European continent.

After two rounds of expert consultations, together with EU representatives we announced the end of the research phase about visa-free travel and decided to proceed to making a list of common steps towards visa free short-term travel of Russian Federation and EU citizens.

In 2010 we carried out a great amount of work with our partners seeking to harmonize this document. Among the participants from Russia were representatives of all interested ministries and departments. The final version of the document was extensive and complex, embracing all possible aspects of a visa-free track. It was introduced by leaders of Russia and the EU at the Russia – Brussels Summit that took place December 14-15, 2011.

We are convinced that a breakthrough in this direction will be a serious achievement in our strategic partnership with the EU and a transition to a new level of the whole complex of relationships, promoting stabilization of the overall area, which is in our mutual interests.

At the very beginning, the Russian side was inclined to work out an agreement about cancelling all visa requirements in cooperation with our EU partners. But considering unavailability of a number of EU member-states to perform the necessary related work, it was decided to accept the concept of the partners and first specify a number of common steps aimed at creating the necessary key technical conditions in order to convince the vacillating EU nations that Russia is ready to administer visa-free procedures and start negotiations about creating the relevant agreement.

We are determined to complete as soon as possible the list of our common steps towards introducing a visa-free track for short-term trips by Russian Federation and EU citizens as announced at the Russia – EU Summit in Brussels in December 2011.

We emphasize the current dynamic work of both sides in developing the joint procedures. In our mind, the process needs to be sped up in order to start direct negotiations for visa free short-term travel agreement in the second half of 2013.

At the upcoming Russia – EU Summit in Brussels on December 21, we expect to discuss the results of our work in this direction.

We aspire to complete the major amount of work on implementing the steps during the first half of 2013 and start creating an agreement about visa-free travel that will be operational before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. This proposed schedule looks quite realistic in case of mutual political will. There is a definite political will from the Russian Federation, but unfortunately is missing from EU side.

The work that began in 2008 on the draft changes in the Russia – EU Visa facilitation agreement is practically ended. Still we have been waiting for a response by the EU to our offer about including a clause about a visa-free track for those who possess service biometric passports into the draft of the said agreement. The EU Council's decision adopted in July 2012 about a visa-free track for those who possess Ukrainian business passports could serve a precedent for creating a similar agreement with Russia.

We emphasize that the EU side has not given a reason for not accepting visa-free track for possessors of biometric service passports. In Russia this involves fewer than 15,000 people, while in Germany there are 30,000 and throughout EU there are more than 150,000.

It should be noted that the text of the projected Russia – EU Agreement contains a clause about cancelling visa requirements for members of civilian airline crews. Russia's existing moratorium on visa requirements for crews of civilian airlines is about to expire, and we have informed the EU partners that starting from November 1, 2012, all crew members of regular civilian airlines arriving into the Russian Federation must have Russian visas (except for those from 15 countries that already have bilateral agreements with Russia).

Russia has firm intentions to move forward on a visa-free track with the EU, and our nation is ready to solve all technical aspects of this urgent problem. It is now the EU's turn to demonstrate their political will in favor of cancelling visas and confirming the real strategic character of our partner relations. The key issue regarding a visa-free track should be mutual trust.

The EU has visa-free arrangements with more then 40 other nations but is no hurry to do so with Russia, its closest, natural and most reliable neighbor. The EU is Russia's major trade and economic partner, with more than half of our foreign trade (expected to exceed US$400 billion in 2012), and the EU's investment in the Russian economy will amount to circa US$300 billion. The number of Russian tourists visiting EU countries this year will exceed 5 million.

In short, there is no other way forward except starting a visa-free regime between Russia and the EU. The main challenge for the EU is to make a political decision in favor of accelerating the process. Russia has made its choice, and now we wait for our partners to do the same. The ball is in the EU's court.

Dr. Anwar Azimov

Author: Dr. Anwar Azimov

A.S. Azimov, Ambassador at Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia

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