If Europe wants to use visa policy to make a difference in Russia’s domestic development, Brussels should lift visa requirements now.
A study released Monday by the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw reports two disturbing trends. First, even as it is getting relatively easier for Russians to get visas to Western Europe, it is getting progressively harder for them to get visas to the new Schengen zone states of Eastern Europe, reducing ties with the country’s closest neighbors. And second, the gap in visa procedure and enforcement within the Schengen zone — which, after all, was designed to create a common, borderless space — is growing wider.
New visa procedures introduced this year, which aim to standardize procedures throughout the Schengen zone, may help resolve these problems. Still, the existence of a visa regime between Russia and the European Union more than seven years after the two sides codified their intention to abolish it begs the question of why the EU continues to insist on visas for Russian citizens. As always, the answer is a combination of “low” and “high” politics. The low politics is security: Visas are part of border controls, designed to allow law-abiding travelers in while keeping nefarious elements out. But the problem is that law-abiding citizens are often kept out, while criminals — for example, those who killed Umar Israilov, a chief foe of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, in Austria — seem to have little trouble reaching their destinations.
If the security argument seems unconvincing, the high politics may be more persuasive. The eventual removal of visa requirements, European leaders contend, is a reward for progress toward democracy and the rule of law and thus a powerful carrot in Europe’s relationship with Russia. Russia, the story goes, no longer needs the financial support, technical assistance and other benefits that had once given Europe and the West broader leverage over Moscow’s policies, but it does want visa-free access to Europe, and so Brussels has leverage.
On closer inspection, however, this argument, too, is lacking. For one thing, it is unclear to what degree Russia’s leadership really feels its citizens’ pain on the visa issue. In October 2006, during the annual televised question-and-answer marathon with the Russian people, then-President Vladimir Putin flatly told a viewer impatient for a simpler visa regime that “Europe owes us nothing.” Russia’s ruling elite, which has no problem obtaining European visas, does not have a great track record at serving the interests of the public, and it is unclear why Russia’s leaders should feel compelled to democratize just so that their citizens can skip the visa lines at European consulates. In other words, it is difficult to see how dangling the visa carrot in front of Russians is going to have much effect on a political establishment that has little public accountability.
That is not to say, however, that visa policy can’t be a powerful tool in dealing with Russia. Rather, the best way to wield this particular carrot would be to go ahead and give it up. If what Brussels and the European capitals really want from the relationship with Moscow is strategic integration with a Russia that would ideally look increasingly like Europe, then European politicians must recognize that such integration and change will have to be driven by Russian citizens, not by the leadership.
To Russia’s leaders, who thrive on flexibility, maneuverability and unpredictability, the institutions that make Europe function are a strategic threat. But to Russian citizens, those same institutions — the things that make Europe Europe — are a refuge and a respite from the difficulties of life and business at home, places of rest and education, as well as sources of income and culture.
Right now, though, Russians are separated from those institutions by the uncertainty and anxiety created by the visa regime. As a result, integration is halting and incomplete. Russians cannot afford to have full faith in European institutions, norms and habits because they cannot be certain how long they will be able to access them. Removing that uncertainty is unlikely to create a flood of illegal immigrants, but it is likely to bring Russian citizens further into the institutional, normative and cultural pathways of Europe. And they will bring the ethos of those institutions — and the demand for change in Russia — back with them across the border.