20.06.2003
From Utopia to Reality
№2 2003 April/June

Throughout the many centuries of Russia’s existence, there has
never been a full consensus of opinion in terms of which direction
the country should develop. A symptomatic result of this dilemma is
reflected by the establishment of the Russia in the United Europe
committee. This reflects the ongoing rivalry between the two
competing concepts for Russia’s development, which can be
formulated in the following way: “Russia and Europe,” or “Russia in
Europe.”

Whatever the case may be, heated discussions about Russia’s
“uniqueness,” for example, how many heads the eagle on the Russian
coat of arms should have, continue to this day. At the same time,
while Russia has been arguing about the most advantageous ways for
its development, the rest of Europe has been discussing, with
increasing suspicion, the “enigmatic Russian soul” and the
“inherent aggressiveness of the Russian bear.” I will not dwell now
on the various dimensions which mutual mistrust and
apprehensiveness assumed in the Cold War years. I can only say,
with sincere regret, that the Russians – at least, an overwhelming
majority of them – have rid themselves of the Cold War stereotypes
much faster than their Western neighbors.

The former fear of the Europeans that massive Soviet tank
columns may one day reach the English Channel has given way to a
new fear: that a similar maneuver will be carried out by crowds of
illegal migrants fleeing from Russia. This unfounded fear goes
against obvious facts, against statistics which demonstrate that
the main flow of illegal migrants to Europe arrive not from the
eastern regions, but from the south. In any case, they are
certainly not arriving from Kaliningrad.

Those who insist that it is much easier to change laws than the
mentality of the people seem to be correct. Life in these modern
times is changing very fast, much faster than the inertial
mentality of the European man-on-the-street, and even many European
politicians, can appreciate; one may only surmise that it is even
more so with the bureaucrats. One thing is certain: the world is
becoming more and more interdependent, and this is the essence of
what is called globalization.

The developments now taking place on the European continent,
which we are witnessing and in which we are taking part, have no
historical precedents in many respects. The European Union has for
the first time in European history actually united states on an
intricate (some would even say eclectic) foundation of common
democratic values and economic standards. The countries and peoples
of Europe have reached a consensus on the principles for
maintaining and strengthening their security, stability and
prosperity, as well as for building a common socio-economic, legal,
cultural and ecological zone which is free of crises and upheavals.
It would be logical to assume that these markedly new relations,
initiated through a rapprochement between the different parts of
Europe, must bring about essentially new people-to-people
relations.

That thesis belongs to political philosophy. As regards the
everyday realities and real Russian interests, there arise
intricate issues of practical interaction with the expanding
European Union. These are fundamental issues concerning trade,
investment, financial cooperation, science, technology, and mutual
responses to new challenges. The steadily progressing partnership
is accompanied by a growing level of competition, which is natural
when the interests of countries clash in the day-to-day market
economy environment.

At the same time, Russia is not only concerned with representing
business interests and large corporations which are pursuing their
specific economic agendas; and the Russian public’s interest toward
Europe is not confined to tariffs and non-tariff restrictions
alone. Obviously, the enlargement of the Schengen zone due to the
inclusion of new EU members, and the toughening of visa
restrictions on its external borders, create additional barriers to
free travel and people-to-people contacts on the European
continent. This is a matter not so much of business, or even
tourism, as it is a simple respect for human rights. Many people in
Russia believe that the Schengen agreement is in direct conflict
with one of their most basic freedoms – the freedom of travel. This
was one of the most important achievements of the democratic
reforms in Russia.

There are many grounds for such a negative attitude toward the
Schengen zone. Over the last decade, Russia has been witness to a
peculiar, dual process occurring throughout Europe. On the one
hand, EU member countries have been removing all barriers which may
impede the freedom of their citizens to travel inside of the
European Union. On the other hand, they have been constructing a
veritable “Schengen Wall,” which is becoming higher and more
insurmountable over time. It will not be very long before it
produces uncomfortable memories of the Berlin Wall.

Western politicians may argue that a Schengen visa is a benefit,
enabling its holder to travel freely about a majority of the EU
countries. This argument may be correct with regard to a
businessman who needs to visit several European countries at once.
But for tourists (who comprise a majority of Russian citizens now
traveling to the West) the main priority is to be able to freely
visit and spend their vacations in one specific country in
Europe.

Nevertheless, the European countries continue to toughen their
visa rules for Russian citizens. Every day, officials of the
various EU embassies in Moscow watch from their office windows as
large crowds of people congregate to acquire a visa; many of these
people must visit the consular departments two, or even three
times, before they finally complete the tedious process. The
humiliating interrogations at consular departments of Schengen zone
countries in Russia have already become too well known, not to
mention the piles of documents that Russians must submit as proof
of their law-abidingness and their wish to go on a pre-paid tour.
Can anyone provide an intelligible explanation as to why a Russian
citizen, who has fully paid for his tour (i.e. a round-trip ticket,
as well as proof of board and lodging and medical insurance), has
to submit yet another document concerning the size of his or her
income? And what motivates the foreign embassies, for example the
Belgium embassy, to establish “income thresholds” of 10,000 rubles
for Russian tourists?

The visa barriers erected by the EU not only make Russian
citizens perplexed and indignant but they fuel corrupt and illegal
activities by some travel agencies which promise to provide a
Schengen visa, a residence permit, or even EU citizenship, for
Russian citizens without any humiliating interviews, unjustified
delays and all of the other problems. Here again, Russian tourists
end up being the main victims: if they submit all of their required
documents to some questionable travel firm, only to have the EU
consuls accuse this firm of engaging in unlawful activities, then
all of its clients are placed on a Schengen blacklist and denied
entry to the EU.

Another factor impeding the free travel of Russian citizens was
initiated through the introduction of visa barriers where they did
not formerly exist. In the last few years, the “Schengen Wall” has
arisen between Russians and their friends and colleagues in Central
Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. This new barrier is a
result of the European Union’s continuing enlargement which has not
even been fully carried out to date. The EU officials argue that
the enlargement is intended to boost Russia’s relations with the EU
and its members and will eventually be of benefit to everyone. But
the reaction of Russian tourists to these moves is understandable
and easily predictable: they prefer to visit countries that do not
require entry visas, thus saving their time and money. The
statistics which compute the travel plans of Russian citizens only
confirm this conclusion: in the last few years, the number of
Russian tourists visiting Turkey and Egypt has increased, while
fewer Russians now visit countries in Central and Eastern
Europe.

In the last decade, Russian citizens became accustomed to freely
visiting Central and Eastern Europe, and feeling like equal members
of the larger European family. So try and explain it to a Russian
citizen, who used to freely visit Karlovy Vary or Varna, for
example, why he or she must now apply for a visa to these
destinations. How will the 200,000-plus Russians, who traditionally
visit Cyprus, react if they are told they must now apply for a
visa, even if it costs as little as U.S. $20?

We have been raising the issue of easing travel rules in our
negotiations with individual EU member countries, and with the EU
as a whole. We proposed back in 2000 for Russia and the EU to begin
work on a visa agreement. Our proposal, frankly speaking, did not
arouse much enthusiasm, although such an agreement would be of
tremendous benefit to both Russians and Europeans, on whose behalf
EU officials and politicians speak. Statistics gathered by the
Russian consular departments in the EU member states, as well as in
countries wishing to join the EU, demonstrate a growing tendency
for Europeans traveling to Russia. The number of Europeans visiting
Russia actually exceeds the number of Russians visiting Europe.

It was only after the Russian President, Vladimir Putin,
personally addressed the heads of state and government of the EU
countries in August 2002 with a proposal to introduce visa-free
travel between Russia and the EU that some headway has been made on
this issue.

No EU member has publicly opposed this idea, yet, at the same
time, none has displayed any special interest in the proposal. We
believe this reaction results from simple inertia, together with
the reluctance to revise particular stereotypes that have been
established over the previous decades.

President Putin, together with the President of the European
Commission, Romano Prodi, at their meeting on February 18, 2003,
agreed to set up a working group to study the prospects and
measures necessary to achieve this goal. This was a major step in
the right direction. We are ready to work intensively so that by
the next Russia-EU summit, to be held in St. Petersburg, Russia in
May, we could present a mutually agreed plan of action – a “road
map” to a visa-free regime between our countries. I sincerely hope
that this time we will not witness another “loose interpretation”
of this summit-level agreement by those who are responsible for
translating this proposal into life. Actually, there have already
emerged grounds for such fears. It is now up to the European Union
to prove that its statements about a “new quality” in its relations
with Russia were not mere words.

There is no denying that transition to a visa-free travel regime
between Russia and the European Union is a difficult problem which
will take much financing, as well as the settlement of numerous
legal and organizational issues. We do realize how much effort a
visa-free environment will cost Russia in order to tighten control
along its borders. This effort may cost Russia billions of rubles,
but to pay this money, we must first understand the rewards which
will be gained in the end, as well as how much time the realization
of this goal will actually require.

Russia and the EU are already working intensively on a bilateral
readmission agreement (the second round of consultations was held
in Brussels on February 27-28). Law enforcement bodies of the two
parties are heightening their cooperation in combating
international crime.

I believe that, apart from mutually agreed landmarks on the way
toward a visa-free regime, the two parties should also make small,
yet significant steps toward this goal. Why not, for example,
preserve the present visa-free environment for Russians who travel
to Cyprus as a pilot project for broader coordination efforts? As
far as we understand, the Cypriots are interested in maintaining
the current visa-free regime. Cyprus is an island that does not
have a land border with other EU countries, and it is not even
planned to be included in the “Schengen space” in the near future.
The same regime could be applied to Malta.

Moscow’s proposal to introduce visa-free travel between Russia
and the EU can provide an additional impetus for further
cooperation in various other fields. Preparations for the move will
require a practical solution of problems pertaining to the
regulation of migration flows, improvement of border control, and
combating certain illegal transborder activities (drug-trafficking,
human-trafficking and various kinds of economic crimes). Now that
the world is going global, it is becoming ever more obvious that
these kinds of problems cannot be settled by simply reinforcing the
“Schengen Wall” solution. The working group could promote the
solution of practical issues through an interaction between Russian
and EU migration, passport, customs, law enforcement agencies and
other affiliated services.

The multilateral projects in this field could be financed from
part of the funds now allocated by the EU for technical assistance
under the TACIS and PHARE programs. Finally, the EU will have to
address the above issues as it is now working on the concepts of
“new neighbors” and “Greater Europe.” In the long run, a transition
toward visa-free contacts will help establish shared democratic and
humanitarian values, build mutual confidence and strengthen
stability throughout Europe.

Progress in addressing these issues will graphically demonstrate
to the citizens of Russia and the European Union that a United
Europe – without new divisive boundaries – is not a political
slogan nor a diplomatic phrase, but a truly achievable reality. I
am confident that, given the political will and courage, we can
move toward a visa-free regime on a basis of mutual advantage with
due regard for all of the strategic prospects.