Talks between Russia and the EU on relaxing visa rules are moving ahead and could be enacted in time for travel to the 2014 Olympics. Experts say German Chancellor Angela Merkel's change of heart led to the breakthrough.
When European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso travels to Russia with several commissioners on Thursday (21.03.2013), one issue on their agenda could put smiles on everyone's faces: the dispute between Moscow and Brussels on relaxing visa procedures appears to be over.
The idea of visa-free travel has been a top priority for Russian leaders for years. "Negotiations on the visa issue have been taking unacceptably long," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev complained at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Nearly a done deal
Europeans also see a deal as long overdue. The new visa agreement is about "98 percent" done after more than a year of negotiations, Soren Liborius, a spokesman for the EU delegation in Russia, told DW.
Under the deal, Russian journalists, students and businesspeople will be able to obtain multiple-entry visas more easily, while travel to Russia will also be easier for EU citizens.
The negotiations had hit an impasse after Moscow had demanded that so-called "service passport" holders should be allowed to travel to the EU without a visa. That exemption would have benefitted primarily Russian civil servants, including staff at embassies and international organizations without diplomatic status. Numerous EU member states, including Germany, opposed the move.
Now there are signs of a breakthrough. The German Foreign Ministry confirmed media reports on this development in early March, in response to a DW request.
Rainer Lindner, executive director of the committee on eastern European economic relations, said he was pleased with the German government's decision to support visa-free travel for Russian service passport holders "under certain conditions."
"It is an important step that we have long called for," he told DW. "But our demands, of course, go much further." The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations has supported long-term visa-free travel between the EU and Russia.
German government and EU officials have declined to provide details.
Russia, on the other hand, was quick to express its pleasure. "The path is cleared," Wladimir Tschischow, the Russian ambassador to the EU, told DW. The change in the German position, he said, was instrumental in persuading other EU member states to drop their objections to Russian service passport holders.
Russia has budged, too, agreeing to limit visa-free travel to around 15,000 people with biometric passports, according to Tschischow. That, he added, is about 10 times less than the number of current service passport holders.
Benefits for business and civil society
Russian expert Stefan Meister of the German Council for Foreign Relations said economic concerned convinced Berlin to change its mind. "The consensus in Germany is that relaxing visa procedures and at some point dropping visas with Russia are positive for both civil society and business and for political relations," he told DW.
Linder agreed. "I think that an important policy decision has been made in Germany," he said. According to a survey by the German Council for Foreign Relations, 80 percent of German businesses approve of a mutual liberalization of visa requirements between Russia and Germany.
Lindner said he saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a driving force behind Berlin's new attitude. During the German-Russian intergovernmental consultations in November 2012 in Moscow, Merkel referred to the visa talks as a "very important" issue.
The visa negotiations took place during a slump in overall German-Russian relations. The Kremlin showed a level of irritation in its response to criticism of domestic conditions in Russia. Now Russia hopes to see an agreement on visa-free travel in the coming months. And should the agreement be quickly ratified, it could become law before Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.