Russia optimistic on EU visa-free travel
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Poland supports Russia's bid for visa-free travel with the EU. But the Polish position is more complicated than he suggests.
Speaking to the press after a special meeting with Polish ambassadors and his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski, in Warsaw on Thursday (2 September), Mr Lavrov said Poland backs Russia's draft proposal on dropping EU visa requirements: "We hope for a quick and positive response from Brussels. The Polish side has confirmed that it will support this draft."
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His remarks were circulated by Russia's top news agencies, such as Ria Novosti, Russia Today and Itar-Tass, under bold headlines such as "Poland vows to back Russia-EU visa free travel."
For his part, Mr Sikorski did not correct Mr Lavrov at the press event. But his own statement on the subject was much more cautious.
Referring to a separate plan to simplify visa rules but only for people living in Russia's EU exclave of Kaliningrad, the Polish diplomat said: "It would be an argument for the more conservative structures in the countries of the European Union, which are mostly the interior ministers, that if our neighbours have respected current simplifications, they would also respect further liberalistion."
"Political will is one thing and fulfilling technical conditions is another thing," he added.
Warsaw is happy to move ahead on visa-free travel with Russia but only if the EU at the same time promises to in future lift visas for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as well.
Poland set out its conditions in the run-up to the EU-Russia summit in May amid concerns that a Russia-only move would send the wrong diplomatic signals to the EU's other post-Soviet neighbours. A source close to Mr Sikorski told EUobserver after the Lavrov meeting that nothing has changed.
The situation with other EU countries makes it even less likely that Brussels will give Mr Lavrov a "quick and positive response" in the coming months.
Former Communist EU countries share Poland's views about promising to lift visas for the whole eastern flank at the same time. But many 'old' EU members are hostile due to domestic debates about immigration and security concerns. Southern EU countries also oppose it because it could harm relations by excluding the EU's southern neighbours.
Meanwhile, the EU institutions are not keen on making visa promises to Russia due to its sometimes shoddy treatment of visiting EU nationals and its general lack of respect for rule of law. Brussels is also concerned that if it gives way on visas now, it will lose a bargaining chip in negotiations on energy security in a new EU-Russia strategic partnership treaty.
"Sikorski knows very well he can make promises on this to Russia if he wants to, because there is plenty of resistance to it in the EU," a contact in the institutions said.