Germany wants EU visa-free travel for Russian officials
The German government has dropped its opposition to EU visa freedom for Russian officials but critics say it is moving too fast.
"I can confirm that the minister of interior and the foreign minister jointly wrote a letter asking for EU visa liberalisation for Russian service passport holders," Martin Schefer, spokesman of the German foreign ministry said Wednesday (6 March) in a press conference.
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A meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels was set to look at the matter later on Wednesday afternoon. Russia has been lobbying EU countries since 2011 about this first step towards complete visa-freedom: that government officials having so-called service passports are granted EU visa freedom.
Germany so far had been opposing the move, which is taken by a majority vote among ambassadors.
Asked what the German government will be able to tell Russian dissidents and opponents of the Putin regime if government officials will be able to travel visa-free to Europe, but not regular citizens, the spokesman said:
"Our relations with Russia are broad and they include these groups of persons you mentioned. Any rapprochement with Russia will benefit all the people in Russia and in the EU."
Diplomats from Russia's neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia, countries that are separately lobbying for visa-freedom, see the move as a proof of the EU's "double standards."
"There is a big difference between Russia and Ukraine, and that is that Ukraine has given visa-freedom to EU citizens, but Russia has not," Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, told this website.
He said so far the EU has claimed the process is "purely technical", based on merits such as introducing biometric passports or beefing up border security. "But this proves the process is political," Yelisieiev said.
"I am very glad such an important country like Germany is in favour of visa freedom, but it should apply the same policy to all eastern neighbours," he added.
Georgia's EU ambassador Salome Samadashvili also said "it is important to make sure that Russia does not have a more privileged position than Georgia on visas," because the Russian government is handing out Russian passports to people in the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A Baltic diplomat meanwhile told this website the German change of heart towards Russia is coming "too soon".
Critics note that opponents to Russian President Vladimir Putin - be it businessmen like Mikhail Khodorkovsky or punk singers like Pussy Riot - are still being jailed and say the judiciary serves as a political arm of the government.
They also suggest that economic interests - Russia is Europe's largest gas supplier and German companies have set up several joint ventures with Russian businesses - play a stronger role than they should.