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Visa liberalisation and Visa imposition – Ukraine

June 11, 2017

With Ukrainians finally witnessing the entry into force of Visa-free travel to the Schengen nations of Europe with immediate effect, naturally while the politicians take the spotlight, the majority of praise and/or thanks should in reality be directed toward the bureaucrats and diplomats on both sides that actually worked out the details and reached agreements.

May the constituents of Ukraine fully employ the opportunities presented responsibly, despite this event in and of itself being as much about symbolism as anything else.

For a nation subjected to a war on many fronts by The Kremlin, both kinetic and non-kinetic, symbolism matters.

What then to do about The Kremlin?  Russians still enjoy Visa-free travel to Ukraine despite the kinetic and non-kinetic war being waged upon Ukraine.

For 3 years of kinetic war, many in Ukraine have argued for the introduction of Visas for Russians entering Ukraine upon the grounds of national security.  The issuance of Visas however, would present the opportunity for some form of additional vetting of those to whom they are granted.  The argument presupposing that Ukrainian border guards are in some way less stringent in their checks for Visa-free entrants into Ukraine than they are for those requiring Visas is a dubious, and perhaps weak line to take.

The counterarguments 3 years ago for not introducing Visas for Russians are numerous but centered around a struggling Ukrainian economy and remittances,  the knotty Russian-Ukrainian business environment that would take time to undo, family members on either side of the borders and social issues, giving the Minsk process a chance to at the very least bring about a meaningful ceasefire (where the fire actually ceases) and the psychological/perceived national isolation that requiring Visas for Europe and Russia could have.  After all, as stated above,  the argument presupposing that Ukrainian border guards are in some way less stringent in their checks for Visa-free entrants (Russian or otherwise) into Ukraine than they are for those requiring Visas is a dubious, and perhaps weak line to take.

Ukraine is no longer where it was in 2014.  There is some semblance of command and control.  There is more professionalism within the State institutions (even if they remain far from optimal due to corruption).  The economy is adjusting to a diminished Russian market and finding other markets.  The full ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is complete and thus fully enters into force on either 1st September or 1st October (depending upon the swiftness of publications in official EU journals).  Family members have made their personal decisions 3 years into this on-going war.   The national security threat has not changed.  (Further the Russian operatives and agents of the FSB, GRU and SVR already in Ukraine by and large remain.  It may be that those known and not under diplomatic passports can be quietly refused Visas and removed if desired.)  The introduction of Visa Ukrainian identity has now been forged in war – both with Russia and with its own domestic political class.  EU Schengen Visa-free brings about a psychological and symbolic victory for the majority over one or the other or both.

Thus there is now the possibility, 3 years into an on-going war with Russia, that Ukraine will introduce Visas for Russians.

The draft legislation is already written and awaits submission for a Verkhovna Rada vote.  That submission may well come 2 weeks from now when the parliament next sits in plenary session.

As it falls upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and backed by the NSDC) to submit this draft, a reader can reasonably expect the majority of Block Poroshenko MPs to vote in favour.  Likewise the People’s Front.  In short, the majority of the majority of the governing coalition.

However, the majority of the majority coalition will not be enough.  There are those within both parties that will not want to, or not want to be seen to, impose Visas on Russians.  The number of abstentions and absentees for any such vote from the majority coalition may mean such a vote would fail.

Batkivshchyna (Ms Tymoshenko’s political vehicle) have clearly stated it will also vote in favour of introducing Visas for Russians.  The rhetoric of Oleh Lyashko would appear to prevent any other position for that party, and Samopomich are unlikely not to vote in favour either.

More than enough to get a vote to introduce Visas for Russians well over the Verkhovna Rada finish line – even accounting for those within the aforementioned parties that may be conspicuous by their absent assenting votes.

A reader will naturally expect reciprocity from Russia and the introduction of Visas for Ukrainians – something perhaps Kyiv is actually counting upon in a reflexive control operation – for that will bring down a “Visa Curtain” that will have significantly moved eastward with Ukraine upon the “European side” of that curtain.

Should The Kremlin decide not to reciprocate, then  it is to be expected that Ukraine will suffer an asymmetric response, and not necessarily along the front lines in eastern Ukraine, as the “Guns of August” that witness an increase in hostilities soon approaches anyway.

Would The Kremlin want to loose its specifically signaled/messaged response to Visa imposition within the annually anticipated increased noise, death and destruction associated with the “Guns of August”?

It remains to be seen whether the MFA Draft will be submitted to the Verkhovna Rada two weeks hence – but if it does it seemly very likely to be supported.  Maybe a milder control measure is preferred by the MFA, such as only Russians with biomentric passports can enter, with proof of funds, proof of address at where they stay, and on production of a return ticket.  No doubt that too would be supported, even if deemed not going far enough by some.

Perhaps therefore, the symbolism of the existing Schengen Visa-free should not be seen in and of itself.  Perhaps it should be seen in tandem with the possible imposition of Visas for Russians in the very near future.

For the President, The Bankova and the Verkhovna Rada, the symbolism of moving the “Visa-Curtain” eastward with Ukraine on the European side is of course apparent.  However with that may well come a yet further energised civil society and Ukrainian constituency expectant of a more concerted domestic effort from the political class and State institutions to meet perceived European norms (whatever those perceptions may be and whether they be grounded in reality or fantasy) and also implement tangible domestic reform in a much more timely manner.

Will the MFA submit the Draft Bill in a fortnight hence?  We shall soon see.

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