On September 9, the new US-Russia Visa Agreement took effect. The Department of State has pronounced the Agreement to be “historic”. If “historic” means “repeating history”, this is certainly true: Russians will be eligible for three-year US visas – just as they were back in the late 1990s. If the Department means “making history” by putting Russia on a fast track towards waiving visas for Russian citizens, as it has recently done for Brazil, it could not be more mistaken.
The subject of visa-free travel between the US and Russia has been raised periodically. In 2011, then-Prime Minister Putin seemingly caught Vice President Biden off guard by broaching the topic of waiving visas for Russians and Americans. Mr. Biden demurred, saying that he was only the Vice President and only the President can make such a decision. Notwithstanding this demurral, the legal spadework had been in place as far back as 2009, when the refusal rate for Russians dropped to 4.9%, only 1.9% above the statutory rate of 3% for consideration for the US Visa Waiver Program. By comparison, the refusal rate for Brazilians was 7% in 2009.
Since that time, the refusal rate for Russians has doubled – now over 10% – while the refusal rate for Brazilians has further dropped to 3.8%. What accounts for the dramatic jump in Russian refusals? First, the US Embassy in Moscow quietly introduced a number of unannounced policy changes – for example, denying applicants who have spent protracted periods of time in the US on visitors’ visas, such as Russian babushkas visiting newborn grandchildren. They must now immigrate to the US in order to visit their grandchildren.
Second, the Embassy “went retro” with its personnel – bringing in consular management who worked in the consular section in the 1990s. The Embassy at that time was known for its hard line visa policies and rude treatment of visa applicants. Izvestia, Inostranets, and the New York Times chronicled many of the problems; in a 1999 survey, the Russian Association of Travel Agencies ranked the US Embassy 30th out of 31 of Western consulates in Moscow. Over the past three years, the Embassy’s old-school management has brought with them that 1990s mindset, one that fails to recognize the enormous changes which have taken place in Russia since that time.
Consular management has also taken a page out of its 1990s playbook by refusing to advise Russian applicants why they have been denied. This not only violates the Department of State’s own regulations, but reverses consular policies that existed just a few years ago. This situation was most recently exemplified when the embassy issued a visa to an applicant’s husband but denied her, without explanation, because the consular database showed (erroneously) that she had a status violation. It was only after making inquiries with the Department of State in Washington that the information was disclosed. This rampant lack of transparency was taken to new lows when both the Department and the Embassy refused to publish an English-language text of the proposed US-Russian Visa Agreement. (In contrast, the Russian government not only published the proposed Russian-language agreement, but its Duma voted on it.)
Of course, visa adjudications do not take place in a political vacuum. Ambassadors, politicos at Foggy Bottom, or career consular officials in Washington can seek to impact individual visa cases and refusal rates. Based on statistics alone, a case could be made that there must have been some outside influence on the Russian refusal rate: while it leaped more than 100% from 2009 to 2010, no other prominent country experienced more than a 15% annual increase (Mexico) from 2009 to 2011.
In closing, one issue that is beyond dispute is that any agreement’s implementation is dependent on the individuals charged with its execution. So while it is certainly good news that Russians and Americans will be eligible for three-year visas, this Agreement will truly be historic only if it portends a change in mentality, if not personnel and policymakers, at the US Embassy in Moscow and Department of State in Washington, a change that will set both Russians and Americans on the path to visa-free travel in the near future.