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EU reluctant to lift visa formalities from Russian holders of service passports

October 16, 2012, 15:37 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Another attempt by Russia and the European Union to agree on the terms of easing the visa regimen has ended in failure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s informal meeting with the EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton and 27 EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg last Monday ended inconclusively. Brussels remains reluctant to make Russian holders of blue-cover service passports exempt from visa formalities.

On the eve of the trip Lavrov said that he was going to Luxembourg for explanations. He told an audience of European business people in Moscow the negotiations on easing the visa regimen with the EU were proceeding worse than one might have anticipated. “We’ve got word the root cause is political,” Lavrov said. “The EU claims that it would be politically unacceptable to grant a visaless regimen to Russia before it has been established for the Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus).

Lavrov said that in Luxembourg he would like to hear from his European counterparts some arguments that would persuade him such suspicions were groundless. However, at the end of the meeting the suspicions were still there. Moreover, they got stronger. “The issue is politicized, there can be no doubts about that,” a source in the Russian delegation told the daily Kommersant after the meeting. “One has the impression the Europeans are procrastinating the process deliberately.”

The negotiations over easing the visa regimen for Russian and EU citizens have run against the problem of service passports. Moscow insists that their holders – legislators, ministerial officials, ranking employees of state-run corporations and a number of other agencies should be exempt from visa formalities. Brussels is against.

On the eve of his trip to Luxembourg Lavrov addressed Catherine Ashton with a message to influence the hesitant EU members, among them, the Baltic states and Germany, to persuade them to alter their stance on the service passports issue. Russia has suggested cancelling visas for the 15,000 Russian holders of biometric passports. In exchange it is prepared to take a similar measure in relation to 150,000 holders of such passports in the EU. The number of Russian officials exempt from visas would be identical to that of their Ukrainian counterparts already having this right. If this proposal is ignored, Russia will introduce visas for the crews of EU aircraft as of November 1, Lavrov warned. (Currently a moratorium on such visas is in effect.)

The fear of an influx of migrants is not the sole cause why Germany and the other EU member-states are in no hurry to agree to Moscow’s demands. As a member of a German parliamentary delegation told Kommersant during a recent visit to Moscow, Berlin is certain there are many spies among the holders of service passports. “I do not know, whether this is true or not, but nobody is eager to make life easier for them,” the politician said.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Monday asked the Russian business community to join the efforts to resolve the issue of a visaless regimen between Russia and the European Union. Speaking at a meeting of the consultative council for foreign investments in Russia he said that Russia had already done everything in its powers to put its legislation in order. It has signed agreements with practically all EU countries. It has made considerable progress in drafting a road map, but there are a number of problems that hinder the freedom of contacts.

“We believe this is unfair and shortsighted,” Medvedev said. He said the Russian government hoped that with support and assistance from business circles the solution of this issue will be achieved before long.

As for a visaless regimen between Russia and the United States, Medvedev said that “there is some progress there, too, but it is not as evident as Russia would like it to be.”

President Vladimir Putin in July 2012 signed a law on the ratification of an agreement to ease the visa regimen in relations with the United States. Under its terms tourists and businessmen can get multiple visas for three years, and members of official delegations, for one year.

The EU-Russia talks on cancelling visas have lasted for many years. A future agreement on simpler visa rules between Russia and the EU envisages not only visaless brief trips for the holders of service passports, but also an opportunity for some groups of Russian citizens (businessmen, journalists and representatives of civil society) to get a Schengen multi-entry visa for a long period of time.

Just recently Russia said that it hoped for concluding an agreement with the EU in 2014 on visaless brief trips. “It would be just ideal if that happens before the Sochi Olympics,” the Russian Foreign Ministry’s special envoy Anvar Azimov said just recently. He added, though, that achieving such an arrangement might require months or years.

“It takes political will to sign the agreement. Regrettably, the European Union does not have it,” he said.

In the meantime, ordinary Russians look little worried about the service passports issue. “Mr. Lavrov,” writes a blogger nicknamed Af Askbyn. “You would like to fly without visas to Europe where you have your bank accounts, wouldn’t you? It is common knowledge that the Foreign Ministry has been pressing for a visaless regimen for the holders of diplomatic and service passports. Everybody knows that the senior officials and the ‘moneybags’ are the first to get them. Most Russian citizens do not need them. Some of us feel disgusted with the way you are bowing to the West!”

MOSCOW, October 16