Europeans stood firm as Russia pushed for visa freedom without fulfilling the agreed technical preconditions. But finding unanimity on political conditions will be a challenge.
Moscow wants visa-free travel with the EU by the time of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held at Sochi, on the Black Sea. But despite Russian pressure in 2012, Europeans remained impressively united in asking Russia to first fulfil a number of previously agreed conditions (specified in the “common steps” towards visa liberalisation between the EU and Russia which were agreed in 2011) that they see as a pre-condition for lifting the visa regime with Russia.
In 2012, several mutual expert missions took place. But Russia was slow to implement a number of conditions it agreed to in the “common steps” package and the EU could have done more to explain to the Russian public what the country has to do to get visa freedom – for example, by making the “common steps” document public. A visa-facilitation agreement that would allow more groups (including students and businesses) to travel from Russia to the EU and vice versa with fewer documents and a smaller fee is close to completion, but kept hostage by Russia’s demand that the so-called service passport holders be granted visa-free travel under the deal – a condition that the EU refuses to accept.
Even though member states now agree that Russia should have a perspective of a visa-free regime with the EU, a debate on its conditions effectively still lies ahead. Finding unanimity within Europe could be a challenge because some member states may tie technical requirements outlined in the “common steps” to demands on the human-rights situation and the rule of law in Russia or to other issues. Some member states such as Italy and Spain are open to a shorter timeframe for abolishing the regime; others such as Lithuania, Latvia, and the four Visegrad countries point out that all technical requirements must be met and Moscow should not get a “geopolitical discount” compared to Ukraine or Moldova. However, neither of these potential debates undermined the EU’s dialogue with Russia in 2012.