When foreigners visit Russia, they tend to like what they see. So why is the Russian government making it so darn difficult for them to do so?
While a few die-hards may be staying on for Saturday’s somewhat meaningless 3rd-4th place game against Belgium, the mass of England fans in Russia are probably heading home right now after their team’s defeat at the hands of the Croats. Despite their disappointment at failing to reach the World Cup final, the evidence suggests that the great majority of English fans have had a thoroughĺy enjoyable time in Russia. The same goes for the fans of all the other participating teams. There is almost universal agreement that World Cup 2018 has been a great success: the football’s been good; there’s been no trouble that anyone has noticed; and the general atmosphere has been fun and friendly. Tens of thousands of foreign football fans are going home and telling all and sundry what a great time they had and that all the scare stories about Russia are a load of nonsense. From Russia’s point of view, it’s a soft power triumph.
The lesson is that when foreigners visit Russia, they tend to like what they see. So here’s a question for the Russian government. Given that Russia benefits when people come and see it, why do you make it so damned difficult for them to do so?
For citizens of most Western countries, getting a visa to travel to Russia is a veritable ordeal – complicated, time consuming, and expensive, and subject to the vagaries of consular officials who might always reject your visa application for some bizarre reason which they will never reveal to you. It’s not surprising that a lot of people decide that it’s not worth the effort.
For the World Cup, the Russians abandoned all the normal visa nonsense. Instead, anyone with a game ticket could get a FAN-ID, which doubled as a multiple entry/exit visa. Getting the FAN-ID was super simple. All you had to do was fill in a very short online form, giving your name, nationality and passport number, and within a couple of days you got a message saying that your application was approved and your ID would be mailed to you free of charge forthwith.
The fact that the huge numbers of FAN-ID holders have not caused any significant trouble for the Russian authorities shows that whatever security checks were done before issuing the IDs was quite sufficient. The plethora of intrusive and sometimes impossible to answer questions on the seemingly ever longer visa application form aren’t necessary at all. Nor is the complicated application process. Russia has shown that a much simpler system works perfectly well.
So, here’s another question for the Russian government? Why not draw the obvious conclusion and abandon the current visa system and just move to something closer to that used for the FAN-ID?
As it happens, I know the answer to this one as I’ve been told it by an official source. The reason getting a Russian visa is so troublesome for us is that it’s troublesome for Russians to get a visa to visit our countries. The Russian authorities don’t actually need all the rubbish they demand from foreigners. They demand it just because we demand it of them.
I understand the logic, but I don’t see what Russia gains from it. After all, Western states aren’t exactly lining up to liberalize their visa regimes just because Russia is playing tit-for-tat. All the policy achieves is that it deters people from visiting Russia. In this way, the Russians are shooting themselves in the foot.
As I said earlier, the World Cup shows that Russia benefits when people come and see it. Russia should make it easier for them to do so.