Visa Conflict May Backfire Against Elite

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When the Foreign Ministry recently denied an entry visa to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, it sparked a flurry of discussion on blogs. Most Russian bloggers expressed a mean-spirited pleasure at the move -- not so much because Roth was prevented from delivering his critical report on human rights violations in Russia, but because now a Westerner has experienced the bureaucratic hassles that Russians face all the time when they try to get a visa to a Western country.

You can't help but admire how the Russian consular service put its foot down when it explained its reason for rejecting Roth's visa application. According to the Foreign Ministry, by applying for a tourist visa, Roth provided "intentionally false information" about the purpose of his visit. Roth's real goal was to deliver a human rights report before a public audience in accordance with his professional duties. Roth said his visa agency had mistakenly indicated he would visit as a tourist.

Roth then made an attempt to obtain a business visa using an invitation issued by the Agriculture Ministry. His application was again denied, even though he applied through a travel agency that was accredited by the Russian consulate.

The funny thing is that if a Russian representative of Human Rights Watch had pulled the same stunt in applying for a visa to a European Union country, he would have been not only denied but also blacklisted and barred from applying to any Schengen country for up to five years.

Imagine the following situation. A distinguished Russian diplomat owns a luxurious seaside villa in Spain. Everything is legal. He has Spanish registration papers and holds a deed to the property. Then, after the diplomat's latest widely publicized speech against the West, representatives of Spain's Environmental Ministry unexpectedly show up at the diplomat's doorstep. They have papers charging the unwanted guest with violating environmental regulations. Court proceedings are initiated to rescind the property owner's deed. The judge finds in favor of the Spanish authorities. Outwardly, everything is done legally, but the true motives are clear.

Imagine another situation. A deputy speaks out against the West in a State Duma session. The most caustic sound bites are shown on all television news programs. Shortly thereafter, the dean of a prestigious British university where the deputy's son is studying calls the young man into his office. He is told that the university has undeniable proof that he cheated on a test and will therefore be expelled. The young man loses his visa and is forced to leave the country.

And finally a third scenario. A Russian television journalist well-known for his daily tirades against the West on his analytical program plans to speak at an international journalism conference in Paris. He is denied a Schengen visa, receives a big, fat "Refused" stamp in his passport and is told that "the consulate is not obliged to explain the reasons for the denial." If he had not previously seen any connection between his anti-Western invective and his desire to visit Europe, after this rejection the two pieces of the puzzle fit together neatly in his mind.

For now, the "visa war" between Russia and the West has been limited mostly to a tit-for-tat game between Russian and British officials. In a recent incident, a few Russian representatives were denied visas to attend the Russian Winter Festival on London's Trafalgar Square.

But relations have deteriorated to such a degree that a full-scale visa war looks imminent. If the West decides to escalate the visa conflict, the Russian elite will suffer the most. Their children, bank accounts, property and favorite vacation spots are all located in the West. So wouldn't it be better to stop intensifying the anti-Western hysteria before it's too late?

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.