Visa free travel to Russia is set to become a reality at last – but only for winter sports fans.
With Russian and EU ministers edging ever closer towards an agreement that would scrap the current complicated visa arrangements, Russia could be prepared to make a gesture of goodwill by making the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 visa-free for sports fans.
Russia has actually pulled a similar trick before, and according to Dmitry Voronkov at the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, “It’s not impossible that we might make a similar arrangement for the Sochi Olympics”.
And should visa-free Olympic travel be agreed, it will be for everyone in the world, Voronkov told reporters, not just citizens of the EU.
However, such a concession should not be seen as a stepping stone to the abolishment of visas to travel to Russia for other means.
Much like the 2008 European Champions League Final, when football fans were allowed to visit Moscow without a visa to watch the match, don’t expect to see any massive changes following the Olympics.
“Discussion about visa free travel for citizens of the EU, is from our side, not appropriate right now,” said Voronkov.
However, things are finally beginning to move on the visa front. While the lifting of visa requirements is still a long way off, the availability of five year visas for EU and Russian citizens who regularly travel between the two political entities is something that could soon be a reality.
“It shouldn’t take us too long to sort this process out, perhaps just another two or three years,” explained Voronkov.
But while long term visas are the objective of the moment, the real goal of entirely visa-free travel is not being ruled out. Indeed, it’s hoped that by the time the Olympics, and definitely by the time the World Cup comes around, achieving that goal might well be a much more distinct possibility.
“Well, if we are going to stretch our imaginations, then yes, when we get closer to these events perhaps we will be able to agree on some kind of timetable for establishing that,” Voronkov said.
However, right now, the best guess he can make is that visa-free travel is still “some years away”.
Still, there is at least a willingness on the Russian side to do business with the EU on the visa issue. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made a statement saying that Russia was willing to scrap its visa rules “the moment the EU is ready for us”.
But such a measure would require Russia to take several steps, including introducing biometric passports, revising registration procedures and adopting EU protocols regarding readmission, said the RIA Novosti news agency.
Russia are beginning to take steps towards this though, with the introduction of EU-approved passports in St.Petersburg imminent, said Voronkov, and this would then be extended to the whole of Russia.