The EU made Russia agree to a list of conditions to be fulfilled in order to benefit from a visa-free regime. The challenge will be to see Russia implement the agreed measures.
A visa-free regime is perhaps Russia’s single most important demand from the EU. In principle, the EU is prepared to accede to this demand, but there are differences among member states on how actively the EU should use the offer of a visa-free regime to extract political concessions from Russia and the time horizons for the abolition of visas. Several important developments took place in 2011. The existing EU–Russia visa-facilitation regime was renegotiated and the EU and Russia agreed to make greater use of long-term multi-entry visas for up to five years. The EU also agreed to extend the right for visa-free local border traffic to all the residents of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Most important, however, was the agreement in mid-December of a set of “common steps” towards a visa-free regime between the EU and Russia: instead of just presenting Russia with a set of conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to qualify for a visa-free regime (as the EU did in the Western Balkans, Moldova and Ukraine), the EU agreed to design a set of steps for both sides to take, which underscored the equality between the EU and Russia.
EU member states have been united in their approach to visa liberalisation with Russia. However, the same cannot be said for the implementation of the existing visa policy on the ground. Some member states such as Finland, Spain, France, Italy and Greece have been asking Russian citizens for fewer supporting documents for visa applications and have granted a higher share of long-term multi-entry visas. But other states such as Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic have been significantly more restrictive in their visa policies. These differences on the ground allowed Russian citizens to engage in “visa shopping” and undermined the potential for the EU to use the prospect of visa liberalisation to promote reforms in Russia or win concessions on political issues such as conflict resolution in Transnistria.