| JRL Home | JRL Simple/Mobile | RSS | Newswire | Archives | JRL Newsletter | Support | About
Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Visa Politics

Russian Border CrossingA former student of mine, aware of the complications I have had with Russian visas, sent me a New York Times article on March 11th about Russian Prime Minister Putin's meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The article states that Biden was briefly encouraging in response to a comment Putin made about visa liberalization between the two countries. While this warmed my heart briefly, the possibility now is as comical as Biden's immediate backpedaling, during which he mentioned ­ either snidely or unthinkingly, and knowing Biden, it could be either ­ that he is, after all, only the second in command.

Ellen Barry, the New York Times writer who reported the piece, felt the need to explain that Biden could have meant that as a dig about Putin's overstepping the bounds of prime minister-ship. She did note, however, a parenthetical comment made by journalist Andrei Kolesnikov (it must be said that his ceaseless parenthetical commentary has become a bit of a bore lately) in Kommersant's story about the meeting that implied either that Biden was laughably stupid or laughably nervous. In any case, the meeting achieved as little as such meetings usually do. Interestingly, though, Russian coverage seems to have given more than the requisite amount of time to Putin's comment and less to Biden's pointed criticisms of the Russian regime.

Visa regulations are a popular method of playing politics in many parts of the world, and Eurasia is no exception. Stringent visa regulations are enacted on Russians by Georgia, Americans travel visa-free in Ukraine, Georgia, and essentially visa-free in Armenia (which has such minor restrictions on tourist visas that they are hardly noticeable). The CIS countries in central Asia often have such strict visa policies that they remind one more of North Korea than, say, Mongolia. The practice is hardly unique to the former Soviet Union, but it has reached a level of mutability and pointedness in this part of the world that few others have attained.

The power of this sort of regulation is often not in its actual effect, but in its insinuations. The subtext of a strict visa policy is the assumption that people coming from the targeted country are causing problems in the host country, whether by behavior, disease, or intent to migrate. The lattermost reason is the basis for most visa policies in the United States, Canada, and the EU, which restrict access to citizens of those countries that have large populations trying to enter permanently. This is not to say that Westerners are above playing petty politics with their visa policy; they are not. But the reason that the United States, for example, restricts Russian entry to its borders is the number of Russians who would like to go to the United States on any visa and never return (upon typing the word "visa" in Russian into Google, the first suggested search term on my browser is "visa to the United States"). Indeed, the US Congress has begun investigating misuse of US student visas by all sorts of people.

What, then, are the insinuations of the Russian government? That foreign nationals seeking to spend more than three months in Russia need an HIV test speaks for itself, and also to the Russian government's scrupulous avoidance of taking blame for this country's very high rate of HIV infection. The problem, the policy implies, comes not from the total lack of sex education (more on that in a week or two) or effective treatment for intravenous drug use, but from the dirty foreigners who come in and infect the otherwise pure Russian population.

It is unfortunate, in the framework of this conversation, that Russia's actual migration problems receive little attention except when they take the form of a threat from the Kremlin to cut off visa-less travel into Russia.

The best example of this is the long-threatened end of visa-free entry to Russia for citizens of Tajikistan, a threat that is again being discussed this month in the halls of power. When used crassly as a tool for bullying, it is easy for visa policy to become a complete sham.

Indeed, what does Russia fear from the countries for whom it maintains tough visa restrictions? The rules seem more about reactionary stubbornness than a thought-out policy decision, retaliation against those countries that restrict Russian entry by restricting their entry in return. In some ways, the visa restrictions enforced by the EU (and therefore reciprocally by Russia) are the sorest point, given Russia's European aspirations, and the one that causes Russia the most potential harm. As a major market in particular for European goods and investment, Russia disincentivizes European entry at a cost to itself.

In all, visas are a more open wound for Russians, who need to get them even to be tourists in most of the countries they would like to go to, than for members of my own country, who mostly need to get them for countries that few venture to. But if Russia continues to penalize citizens of other countries out of wounded pride or revenge or desire to bully, it hurts mostly itself. Itself and those who, like me, come here not to spread AIDS and propaganda, but simply to work and live.

Keyword Tags:

U.S.-Russian Relations - Russia, Foreign Policy, Security - Russia News - Russia - Johnson's Russia List

Bookmark and Share - Back to the Top -        


Bookmark and Share

- Back to the Top -        

  Follow Johnson's Russia List on Twitter Tweet