On EU-Russia visa free travel (Part 1)

A visa-free regime with the EU is perhaps the one thing that most Russians want most from the EU and is a key priority for Russia’s EU policy. The EU and Russia have agreed on a set of ‘joint steps’ towards a visa-free regime. The issue of visa is hugely important for the EU as well. It resonates with domestic debates on immigration. It also poses huge logistical challenges for EU member states. The highest number of EU visas in the world is issued in Russia and in the top ten EU consulates worldwide judged by the number of visas issued, nine are in Russia. So, here are two blog posts looking into some of the issues related to the perspective of EU-Russia visa-free travel. The first deals with the state of play in EU and Russian visa policies, and the second will deal with the perspectives for visa-free travel in the future.

Divergent visa practices

Not surprisingly, EU member states approaches to visa policies on Russia vary hugely. Some EU member states like Belgium, Germany or the Netherlands, and almost all the ministries of interior across the EU are in favour of a more restrictive approach to visas. Such policies are driven by several concerns.

First – are the risks of excessive immigration. Many also argue that the existing visa regime limits the flow of potential asylum seekers or petty criminals from Russia. In fact, Russia is the second most important source of asylum seekers in the EU after Afghanistan, and ahead of Iraq and Somalia. Furthermore, Europol’s annual Organised Crime Threat Assessment OCTA 2011 warned that visa liberalisation with Russia “may lead to widespread abuse” and this would “undoubtedly present new opportunities for organised crime groups involved in illegal immigration”.

In the view of others, a potentially useful side effect of the visa-regime is that EU or its member states can impose travel-restrictions. For example, Estonia blacklisted some activist of a thuggish pro-Kremlin youth group called Nashi believed to be behind the assault on the Estonian embassy in Moscow in 2008 (the former leader of Nashi is now an official; and still on the visa ban). With the US introducing visa bans against roughly 60 Russian officials involved in the death of lawyer Magnitsky and the European Parliament calling for a similar ban, a Russian expert argued that such “visa bans have the potential to moderate potential human rights abuses by various officials. They won’t stop stealing, but would think twice before doing really nasty abuses.”

 Leading exporters of Asylums Seekers(2010) Number of Citizens reaching EU
Afghanistan 20,580
Russia 18,500
Serbia(excluding Kosovo) 17,715
Iraq 15,800
Somalia 14,350

Source: European Commission

On the other end of attitudes are a group of EU member states that are much more liberal. States like Spain, Italy, or Greece are keen to encourage tourists and are very liberal in the issuance of visa. They often ask for fewer supporting documents, have lower refusal rates and offer more long-term multi-entry visas. The most liberal of all is Finland. It issues almost as many visas in Russia as Germany, France and Italy put together. And the Finnish consulate in St Petersburg, dubbed by fellow EU member states the ‘Finnish visa factory’ is the biggest EU consulate in the world issuing over 700.000 visas annually, followed by the Spanish consulate in Moscow with around 438.000 visas issued in 2010. Equally striking is that 98.8% of Austrian visas issued in Moscow or 96% of Finnish visas issued in St Petersburg are multi-entry, whereas only 1.6% of Czech visas issued in Moscow are (all the data is from the European Commission).


Biggest EU Consulates (by number of visas) Total Visas Issued
1.     Finnish Consulate in St. Petersburg 738,525
2.     Spanish Consulate in Moscow 438,182
3.     Italian Consulate in Moscow 434,182
4.     Greek Consulate in Moscow 327,848
5.     French Consulate in Moscow 251,713
6.     German Consulate in Moscow 224,920
7.     Czech Consulate in Moscow 205,932
8.     Finish Consulate in Moscow 125,439
9.     Austrian Consulate in Moscow 111,951
10.  German Consulate in Kiev 97,171
11.  French Consulate in Istanbul 95,650
12.  Italian Consulate in Beijing 84,882
13.  German Consulate in Beijing 78,573
14.  French Consulate in Algiers 74,017
15.  French Consulate in Shanghai 73,112

The ‘liberals’ also argue that, under the current system most of those who potentially threaten EU security have the means to get the visas. Criminals or corrupt officials have the money to make reservations in posh hotels or buy property in the EU which are strong reasons to be granted a visa. However, the current visa policies close the door for ordinary Russian citizens, while hardly restricting the movements of the rich and often corrupt elite. As an important side-effect, EU visa policies also undermine EU soft power, while hardly being an obstacle for sophisticated Russian organised crime networks.

It is also worth noting that the state of political relations with Russia is not a good indicator for approaches to visa-policy. Most of the Central European EU member states are rather liberal in their approaches even if many of them have difficult political relations with Russia; whereas some of Russia’s closest partners in the EU, like Germany, can be quite difficult on visas.

Russia’s approach to visas – hardly liberal, or reciprocal

Russia’s approach to the issue of visas is a mixture of criticising the EU for a discriminatory policy, lobbying EU member states for a visa-free regime, and retaliating against specific EU member states with tougher visa requirements. One such instance came in autumn 2010 when Russia introduced tougher conditions for German citizens such as requesting proofs that they will return to Germany, bank statements, property deeds, or company registration certificates, mirroring German requests from Russian citizens.

Overall,Russia tries to apply the principle of reciprocity in its visa policies with the EU. Yet, looking into the details of it this is not always true. For sure the EU visa regime is highly restrictive, but Russia’s visa regime is equally cumbersome and on the margins can be even tougher. To begin with, Russia does not have the same wide-spread policy of granting long-term multi-entry visas like Austria, Finland or the UK (mostUKvisas are for 6 months and multi-entry) even for the citizens of these three countries. So Russia is happy to reproduce the worst EU visa practices, but prefers not to reciprocate on the better aspects of EU visa policies.

In addition, Russia has other requirements which complicate the travelling of EU citizens to Russia– a foreigner visiting any place in Russia for longer than three days needs to register with the authorities. So the paradox is that a Russian citizen who obtained a Schengen visa can visit 25 countries from Estonia to Portugal and Iceland to Greece without any restrictions, yet an EU citizen visiting Russia has to register with the federal migration service every time for stays longer than 3 days or when visiting other towns for longer than 3 days. Hotels do such registrations automatically, but visiting friends or relatives in Russia is more difficult, since they have to go through these pretty bureaucratic procedures themselves. Though, the current system is something of an improvement. Just a few years ago foreigners had to go to the police to register which was time consuming and was best solved with a bribe.

Part 2 will follow soon…