• Russian police arrest human rights activist in Moscow. The visa free move could be seen as a 'present' to Putin despite lack of reform in Russia, one analyst said (Photo: Antonio Grossi)

EU preparing to launch visa-free talks with Russia

15.11.11 @ 09:26

  1. By Valentina Pop and Andrew Rettman

BRUSSELS - France and Germany have said the EU should quickly open talks with Russia on visa-free travel despite fears it might send the wrong signal to other post-Soviet states.

EUobserver understands the foreign ministers of the two countries outlined their position at an informal dinner in Brussels on Sunday (13 November) with foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton and fellow EU ministers.

A senior Polish diplomat on Tuesday noted that Warsaw is happy to go along with the plan: "We believe in dismantling obstacles to freedom of tourists and businessmen to travel ... If some of our member states want to move on visa liberalisation with Russia, good, Poland is at the spearhead [of the process] with the local border traffic agreement for Kaliningrad."

The contact was referring to an agreement by EU interior ministers earlier this month to free up travel for cross-border traders in the Russian exclave in a move which could enter into force by the end of the year.

The Polish diplomat added that if Russia is to take steps toward visa-free travel, then the EU should help other post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to make progress on the same path.

Romanian foreign minister Teodor Baconschi on Monday also warned there should be no special treatment for Moscow. "At the Sunday informal dinner on Russia we asked for 'regional coherence' on mobility. Meaning, visas should not to be liberalised for Russia while leaving other partners in the region waiting," he said.

The visa question is highly political because it risks giving the impression Russia is more important to the EU than smaller post-Soviet countries that want to join the EU.

Ukraine started visa-free talks last December and in January with Moldova but with harder pre-conditions on technical compliance with EU standards than Russia.

A joint letter to Ashton by German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and Poland's Radek Sikorski at the weekend underlined the fact Russia is in a different league.

The ministers noted that Russia has far to go in terms of democracy and human rights, but said it "holds great political influence ... offers considerable economical opportunities and owns enormous natural resources." It added: "[A] strong and ambitious partnership between the EU and Russia will not only have a positive effect on our security but also contribute to Europe’s geopolitical weight and influence."

The launch of visa free talks is an open-ended process that could take years before travel restrictions are actually lifted, with Ukraine and Moldova still in pole position in the race due to previous reforms.

Writing in his blog in EUobserver, European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Nicu Popescu noted the Russia move could be seen as a "present" that legitimises Russian Prime Minister's takeover of the Russian presidency next year, however.

He said Russia poses a variety of immigration challenges because it is the second largest source in the world of asylu`zx m seekers after Afghanistan and because it is unlikely to welcome missions on its borders with, for example, Kazakhstan, to monitor implementation.

Popescu added on Tuesday, however: "Overall I think it is good for Russia to start and conclude these talks ... Moving faster on Russia will also make the EU be more open to visa free with Moldova-Ukraine and vice- versa."

This stoy was amended at 13.30 Brussels time on 15 November to reflect more accurately the Polish position on visas