The winter holidays have only just ended here, but many Russians are already planning their next European getaway, buying plane tickets and reserving hotels. They are also compiling bank statements, gathering insurance forms, paying fees, taking photographs, making photocopies, waiting in long lines and being interrogated by embassy officials — all to receive a European visa, a kind of permission slip to enter the rest of the Continent that like little else underscores the walls still dividing Russia from the West.
While Estonians and Bulgarians, Latvians and Poles can traipse about Europe unimpeded by the borders and bureaucracy that once bound them to Moscow, Russians must seek permission. To obtain a visa is frustrating and at times degrading, travelers here say, leaving many wondering why Russians seem so unwelcome. “Maybe Russia is just too big, or maybe it is because of our past conflicts,” Mikhail Poponin, 21, a professional skateboarder, said while lining up in subzero temperatures outside the Estonian Embassy for a visa. “Maybe they just think that Russia is a backward country.”
In Russia, internal restrictions on foreign travel melted away with the Soviet collapse, and the freedom to go abroad, especially to the 27 countries of the European Union, is cherished. The European Union, however, has been a reluctant host. Russian officials have been pressing their European counterparts for years to at least ease restrictions on Russian travelers. The visa issue has attracted renewed attention in recent weeks as European officials have suggested that they are now willing to consider doing so.
The Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, said in a visit to Moscow that Spain, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, would use its position to push for a less restrictive visa policy. European officials have made similar promises in the past, though most have gone unfulfilled.
A visa to enter the European Union can cost as little as $50, but it is not the money that tends to bother many Russians. It is the suggestion that perhaps Russians could be up to no good. Travelers must provide bank statements showing they can afford the vacation. They must show proof of employment and hotel reservations and plane tickets purchased beforehand, the implication being that every applicant is a possible illegal immigrant. But after asking for extensive amounts of paperwork, the Europeans end up rejecting very few applicants.
Europeans (as well as Americans) have to obtain visas to enter Russia, but the process for getting a basic tourist visa often is much simpler. An interview, for example, is not required. “The current visa regime represents a clear illustration of the fact that Russia and the European Union are actually not the partners that they often declare themselves to be,” said Arkady Moshes, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “For the common Russian citizen, nothing more clearly represents this lack of partnership like the visa regime. It is not just symbolic. It really affects people.”
The European Union now includes former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland and Romania. But most galling to many Russians is the need to get permission to enter Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former Soviet republics that are also now European Union members. In Soviet times, all three countries were freely visited on weekend outings and family vacations.
Albina L. Marshalkina, a 70-year-old pensioner, traveled by slow economy trains two days to Moscow from her home Veliki Novgord to apply for a visa at the Estonian Embassy. The train ride, along with piles of paperwork, fees and a weeklong wait for a visa now separate Ms. Marshalkina from her daughter and grandchildren in Estonia. A tense political relationship between Estonia and Russia has made any unilateral easing of the visa process unlikely. “They are there and we are here, and it is so difficult for us to go there and expensive,” she said, bundled against a frigid wind outside the embassy. “I am not concerned with what is going on in Estonia. Let them solve their own problems, but let us see our children and grandchildren. Open the border.”
The reasons for keeping the visa policy in place vary. For one, there is little political will in Europe to change it. While citizens of the European Union also need a visa to go to Russia, few are rushing to get there. Many European member countries also have serious misgivings about large numbers of Russians freely entering the bloc, said Fernando M. Valenzuela, the head of the European Union delegation to Russia. “We know that all these visa things are connected to issues of illegal immigration, or organized crime and drug trafficking, et cetera, ” he said.
While the Spanish government seeks to raise the issue within the European Union during its presidency, he added, no discussion of the matter has begun. Europe is certainly not the only destination for Russians with wanderlust. Turkey and Egypt are hugely popular travel spots, where Russians can easily get visas at the airport. Israel lifted all visa restrictions for Russians in 2008.
Still, people are willing to put up with the process of getting to Europe, where many now conduct business. But the hassle can be trying. “I need to immediately go on a business trip and I have a visa, but my assistant, who I need to bring with me, has to wait six days for a visa,” said Vladimir Drigant, 60, who was at the French Embassy visa center helping his grandson with a tourist visa for a separate trip.
Later, Mr. Drigant’s grandson walked by, looking dejected. He did not have photocopies of all 37 pages in his passport as required, and he was told to come back another day.
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