Volunteers Form Program To Ease Visa Regulations
Representatives of City Hall and foreign consulates declined to attend the launch of the No Visa project.
Published: September 5, 2012 (Issue # 1725)
“The Russian passport is a curse!”
This bitter exclamation is well known to just about any Russian who has spent several hours waiting — in various weather conditions — in seemingly endless, slow-moving lines outside consulates of European countries, carrying thick stacks of documents ranging from bank statements to letters from employers to property ownership deeds.
It is no secret that the sentiments of European residents in need of a Russian visa are no less positive.
Optimistic and encouraging statements on the visa issue have been made in impressive quantities by both Russian and European politicians with some regularity since at least 2008, but no feasible step forward has yet been seen. Now a new project, titled No Visa, has been born both out of ordinary people’s fatigue and disappointment with the government’s failure to handle the issue efficiently and the hope that a citizens’ initiative will help to ease the visa burden.
The declared goal of No Visa (www.no-visa.info), which was officially launched in St. Petersburg on Aug. 31, is information support regarding the cancelation or facilitation of visa requirements between Russia and EU states.
The project was created in cooperation with the German-Russian Forum in Berlin. At present, No Visa is staffed by 120 volunteers who work to collect and summarize a range of opinions and specific proposals on eliminating or facilitating the visa regime between Russia and EU countries. Through the forum’s connections, these proposals will be handed to — and discussed with — participants of the annual Russian-German St. Petersburg Dialogue Forum, which will next be held in July 2013.
Members of diplomatic circles as well as government organizations have reacted cautiously to the creation of the No Visa project. It is revealing that its presentation on Aug. 31 was ignored by every one of the representatives of local consulates who had been invited. Nor did any members of City Hall attend the meeting.
“It is certainly not that we were too lazy to invite them,” said Darya Bobrovskaya, the project’s coordinator. “Some of the diplomats replied that they were too busy to attend a meeting in the middle of a working day — as if we were asking them out for a coffee, not a matter of crucial importance — while some officials said that the subject is too sensitive, and they either do not know what to say or are afraid of saying something wrong and irritating their bosses.”
The visa issue is indeed a touchy one.
Not every Russian official would have found it easy to comment on some of the situations that had been collected by the project’s volunteers and were shown on video at the presentation. Take, for instance, the case of Stefan Bistrich, a young man from Germany, who applied for a tourist visa to Russia earlier this year. The invitation that had been issued to him by his Russian friend was declared invalid by the Russian Consulate on the grounds that the friend resides in Germany. Time was becoming a pressing issue, so Bistrich contacted a German travel agency that secured a fake invitation from a Russian company that claimed that Bistrich was its representative in the CIS states. Bistrich received a three-month business visa. The whole process cost him a total of 120 euros, which he paid to the agency.
Although Bistrich got his visa, the experience left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Why on earth are bureaucrats forcing normal people, who otherwise respect the law and rules, to resort to tricks that they are embarrassed or ashamed about deep at heart,” he asked. “Would it not be easier to simplify the procedure? In the end, a lot of people end up traveling with visas issued with fake invitations.”
Travel agencies of the kind that Bistrich resorted to exist in large numbers, and not only in Germany.
“Most professors and teachers whom we invite to give lectures prefer to get their visas via such travel agencies because it is easier,” said Yelena Belokurova, a professor with the Center for European and German Studies of St. Petersburg State University. “Although they come here to teach, they get tourist visas through these agencies. Even creating an official invitation for these professors is a lot of hassle — you have to collect several signatures at the university alone — and then their personal presence is required at the consulate both at the time of application and the time of collection. Many professors would need to travel far from their small towns for these appointments at the consulates.”
It is well known that many people on both sides of the EU-Russia borders solve the bureaucracy versus fake documents dilemma by choosing the latter option. Most are far from happy to do so, but often see no way to legally fulfill all the requirements, despite having no criminal intent.
“To achieve political solutions, the first thing that is required is to call things what they really are,” Bobrovskaya said. “The visa issue has become a lucrative and highly profitable field for all sorts of parasites these days. And that does not help national security.”
These sentiments are very close to Christoph Hoerstel, head of the Visa working group at the German-Russian Forum in Berlin. For starters, the politician concedes that the easiest way for a St. Petersburg resident to get to Germany is by applying for a Schengen visa at the Finnish Consulate, which requests far fewer documents.
“The Consulate of Finland issues three times as many visas as the German Consulate, and this is hardly surprising considering the impressive difference in the list of documents that is required for application,” he said. “The Schengen requirements are standard for all countries in the agreement, but a lot depends on a particular state’s interpretation of them, and even on the attitude of a particular clerk.”
In spring, Hoerstel and his counterparts contacted the German parliament with a request to make public the contents of a document that was signed between Russia and the EU at the end of 2011, in which a long list of specific steps essential for reaching visa-free travel was outlined. The appeal has so far gone unanswered.
Yet Hoerstel is not discouraged. He feels that progress on the visa issue is tangible.
“One serious indicator is this: When my group was beginning its work, politicians referred to 2018 as the possible date for the start of visa-free travel, and now most people are talking about 2014,” he said.
“This is a clear sign of a crucial change in the mindset of politicians.”