No Winners in a Visa War

I don't know much about other consulates in Moscow. But the British one -- among Russians, at any rate -- has a pretty poor reputation. I've heard all kinds of complaints about it, ranging from the racket that seems to run the waiting line system outside to the unsympathetic grillings that are meted out inside, however far you've had to travel for the privilege.

My own stepdaughter, Kseniya, on her way to the Reading Room at London's British Museum -- previously the home-away-from-home of Karl Marx, no less -- was once accused of obviously wanting to defect (or whatever the phrase is nowadays). And even when she was finally given the visa she needed, she was informed that she'd almost certainly be given a very hard time by immigration officials at the airport on arrival, and she might even be refused entry.

She was then, I have to say, a full-time graduate student at Moscow State University, working part-time for a philosophy journal and on the Russian version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. So what could have prompted this threat of "a very hard time" was quite beyond me, especially given the fact that faintly sinister Russians carrying suitcases full of extremely iffy dollars for British houses and British bank accounts seem to have few, if any, problems.

These days -- this being the low season -- there are no lines outside the British Embassy. So the waiting line racket is having to wait for better weather to get back in business. Still the grillings, I'm told, continue. And to them has now been added the extra indignity of having to pay for the privilege. A regular visa, such as the one my mother-in-law was recently allowed, costs something like $60 -- an enormous amount of money for most ordinary Russians.

It's quite possible, of course, that charging this sort of money for visas is now standard practice in the foreign consulates -- the American, the Italian, the French and so on. Even so, the British do seem to constitute a special case. The Russians in London happen to charge British travelers something like ?60 ($98) for the right to travel to Russia. And the Brits now seem to be imitating their line. The whole thing, in fact, smacks of tit-for-tat retaliation: one of those mean-minded, Cold War, pari passu tiffs that used to happen whenever anyone was caught spying.

Further evidence of this comes from a telephone call I made to someone high up in the Russian Embassy in London. I was enquiring -- on behalf of a colleague who wanted to travel to Russia -- about what he had to do to secure a visa. "Previously," the answer was, "we'd have issued him one here. But now, if we did that, he'd almost certainly be stopped at the frontier and sent back. So what he has to do is get someone to send him an invitation, which may have to be vetted first by the Foreign Ministry. It may take both time and money."

The warning that a visa issued by the consulate might not be enough to get someone into Russia is, of course, exactly what the British told my stepdaughter Kseniya about her trip to London. And the money that the British consulate now charges is clearly linked to the fee extorted by the Russians, which can go over $200, I'm told, if the visa is wanted quickly. The careful vetting of invitations by the Russian Foreign Ministry is, it seems to me, the exact (arm's length) equivalent of the grilling that's regularly handed out by British consular officials in Moscow.

So what I want to know is: Just how the hell long is this going to go on? Until folks are charged $100, $150 or $300 for their visas? Until British tourists and British traders can no longer be bothered to travel to Russia; and Russian biznesmeni, or businessmen, decide that Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland are a whole lot more convenient as homes for their money?

Both sides in this little spat are in severe danger of shooting themselves in the foot. The British are likely to lose the piles of dollars now being sunk into the property, investment and commodities markets, as well as opportunities in Russia for their own -- already less than dynamic -- businessmen. The Russians are likely to lose out, both in business and tourist trade, which is already threatened by the absurd amounts of money charged to the independent traveler.

The British claim that they're trying to screen out those who outstay their visa terms or claim asylum. The Russians say, privately, that they're responding to the poor treatment meted out to their citizens. Something has to give. Otherwise, British travelers will go on paying for the operations of the entire Russian Embassy in London, and Russian businessmen will go elsewhere.