Mr. Medvedev, Tear Down This Wall!
- By Unknown
- May. 27 2008 00:00
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Russians have had much to celebrate recently. When Dima Bilan took first place in the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, Russia pulled off a hat trick by winning top honors in football, hockey and music in the same month. And with the smooth handling of the Champions League final last week, which saw some 40,000 British football fans come to Moscow with no logistical disasters, it certainly seems like Russia is on a roll.
There is another reason to celebrate too: Cracks are appearing in Russia's visa regime, a Soviet-era relic that has stunted tourism and held back business.
The first crack appeared when the Kremlin waived visa requirements for fans holding tickets to the Champions League final, after the State Duma rushed through a bill allowing such waivers. The bill was designed to apply to future events as well -- most notably, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
But when Bilan sang his way to victory at Eurovision, which means next year's song contest will take place in Moscow, Russia got another chance to host thousands of foreigners in a high-profile event.
We hope President Dmitry Medvedev will drop visa requirements for Eurovision fans next year. We also hope that these experiments in visa-free travel will convince Russia to lift its visa regime for short-term visitors once and for all -- just like Ukraine did after it hosted Eurovision in 2005.
Moscow businesses enjoyed a windfall from the influx of British fans last week, with some reports putting the total boost to business at $70 million. Street vendors and cafe owners sang the praises of the visa waiver, echoing experts who have long argued that the visa regime is detrimental to Russia's underdeveloped tourism industry.
Moscow's main argument in favor of the visa regime is that Europe and the United States make it hard for Russians to get even simple tourist visas, so Russia should respond reciprocally. We agree that other countries should simplify the humiliating obstacles that Russians face when applying for visas.
But the reciprocity argument breaks down when you consider that the number of Russians hoping to visit the West is much larger than the number of Westerners hoping to visit Russia. If the European Union dropped its visa requirements for Russians, it would be cause for celebration in Russia. But if Moscow dropped its visa requirements for EU citizens, most Europeans, quite frankly, would not care.
Russia's position on the visa issue is not useful. At its root, the reciprocity argument is based on pride. But as Bilan and Russian athletes proved this month, Russia has a lot more to be proud of than its ability to create paperwork hassles for Western tourists.