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Analysis & Opinion
07.07.11 Trickle Down Politics
By Andrew Roth

Russia is set to considerably ease its visa regime with the United States and members of the Schengen Zone by introducing long-term visas and simplifying the necessary paperwork to receive them. At the same time Russians travelling to the United Kingdom have become incensed in recent days over considerable delays for visas, leaving potential travelers stranded and bearing the costs of cancelled travel plans. With public criticism of the visa process mounting, debates are emerging over whether a similar easing of the visa regime between Russia and the United Kingdom is necessary, or even possible.

For Russians travelling abroad, in particular to Europe and the United States, nerve-racking waiting periods for visas and a fear of rejection are the norm. Yet recently the issue has come to a head as hundreds of Russians waiting for visas to the United Kingdom have suffered delays, igniting anger against a system that regular travelers to the country say is excessively convoluted.

“I would say that the real issue here is a lack of respect for people travelling as scientists, professors, and so on,” said Viktor Khrul, a professor of Journalism at Moscow State University, who was delayed en route to an official convention taking place at Cambridge. “In the American Consulate, you have people that you can talk to, some sort of contact, but in the British office, you hand in your documents, and you have no idea what happens after that.”

Tour operators too have been hit with major delays in processing visas in recent weeks, prompting official complaints from Russia’s Association of Tour Operators. Maya Lomidze, the acting director of the organization, told Russia Profile that as of this Saturday, 60 families with plans to travel to the United Kingdom on official tours had been forced to change or cancel travel plans, with additional costs being split between themselves and local tour operators.

Lomidze noted that while visa applicants attempting to travel to the United Kingdom and the United States were fairly similar, an important difference was Britain’s higher rate of refusals for visas. “Britain is also the leader in terms of denying visas. While the United States is close to two percent, the United Kingdom is close to eight percent,” said Lomidze. Schengen visas to mainland Europe, she further noted, were considerably easier to obtain.

A beleaguered British passport service has cited an unprecedented growth in applications for travel to the United Kingdom as the main cause behind the delays. Embassy officials said in e-mailed statements that early figures for the months of April, May, and June indicated a continuing trend of a 37 percent jump in applications for tourist visas this year, and said that travel companies block-booking reservations to sell to customers are further hampering the process. Embassy officials said that they were extending working hours and increasing staff to deal with the increase in applications, adding “we hope to meet our published targets again soon.”

The visa hold-up is emerging as considerable advances in easing visa restrictions between Russia and the United States and Russia and the member states of the Schengen Zone are set to take place.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are set to sign an agreement in Washington next week that will allow for three-year multiple entry business and tourist visas and eliminate some of the documents necessary to receive a visa, including invitations. Lavrov said today that the signing was on track, and that the document was in the “final stage” of preparation. Europe, too is seeing considerable progress, where France and other countries in the Schengen Zone plan to introduce five-year tourist visas for Russians by the end of year. The Schengen Zone consists of 25 countries covering much of Europe, but not the United Kingdom and Ireland.

American Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, likely to be replaced by Michael McFaul soon, noted in remarks on July 4 that the new visa regimes are for him the “best” part of the reset between the two countries, putting those negotiations on level with the signing of the new START treaty. “The main thing that I have learned in the three years that I have been here is that as important as the relationship is between the governments, the relationship between the people is more important,” said Beyrle, reported the Moscow Times.

In contrast, visa restrictions between the United Kingdom and Russia appear unlikely to change in the near future. British Minister for Europe David Lidington made waves in the Russian press this week when he said on Wednesday that any discussion of relaxing the British visa regime were contingent on progress in the case of Andrei Lugovoi, whom the British want extradited from Russia on suspicion of the murder of ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Clarifying statements by the Russian Embassy in Moscow said that Lidington was referring specifically to travel restrictions for bureaucrats, and not for regular Russians travelling as tourists or on business.

All the same, both countries have protested the other’s border policies in high-profile cases in the past. While the United Kingdom has protested visa annulments in cases like Guardian journalist Luke Harding this February and Hermitage Capital head William Browder in 2006, Russian authorities have also complained about Russian fugitives, such as oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Andrei Borodin, taking refuge in the United Kingdom after running foul of the Kremlin.

Agitators for a relaxed visa regime between the United Kingdom and Russia have focused more closely on eliminating bureaucracy than on high-profile political cases, however. Executive Director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce Stephen Daizel wrote in a recent op-ed for Russia Beyond the Headlines: “For once, I should be delighted if we were to take a leaf out of the Americans’ book. It’s high time that the bureaucrats realized the benefits that international business brings to the country and made the visa process simpler or – shock, horror – abolished it altogether. This, of course, is unlikely to happen any time soon.”

Lomidze said that the primary issues were simply administrative problems in the embassy’s visa department, which needed to plan accordingly for future demand. “Some long term changes need to be made, like increasing the number of workers and shortening the period for receipt of visas,” said Lomidze. “But we don’t see this as a political issue, just as an administrative issue.” Lomidze further noted that despite publicity over the delays, interest in travel to the United Kingdom remained at previous levels.
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