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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coalition Calls for Visas With 'Dignity'




Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series about how Russians get - or don't get - visas to travel abroad.


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Marina Kirilyuk, a Russian lawyer, applied last month for a U.S. visa to go testify at a child custody trial in California. But she was told by consular officials that this was not reason enough to leave the country, as an affidavit could be filed through the embassy. According to Kirilyuk's account, the documents she brought to her interview at the embassy - including court papers, bank statements and her international passport, which had two U.S. visas - was not even looked at.


Now Kirilyuk has joined forces with a group of Russians and expatriates in a grass roots effort to force Western embassies to review and improve their visa policy, which has often been called unclear, unfair, expensive and, at times, humiliating.


This week the group put together an outline of their "Charter for Dignity," or what is hoped to become a set of standards by which all embassies will abide when processing visa applications from Russian nationals. In an effort directed not "at the embassy per se but rather at the visa process," the group has thus far highlighted the following goals: transparency of the visa process; respect for the applicant; reasonable uniformity of the process among Western embassies; and sample application forms in Russian.


The public debate leading up to the group's formation started gaining momentum just over two weeks ago, after The Moscow Times ran a story about a survey of embassies conducted by the Russian Association for Travel Agencies. Ranking in the bottom dozen were the U.S. and several European Union countries, including England, France, Germany and Ireland.


The following Saturday, the paper published a response to the article from Michael O'Leary, an Irish expat who suggested creating a "charter that clearly spells out exactly what's required of the applicant, the inviting party and what the process involves."


Embassy spokesmen conceded some of the criticism had merit. At the same time, they said such complaints were only part of the story.


"The numbers speak for themselves," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman, who asked that his name not be used. "Seventy-five percent of Russian applicants receive the [non-immigration] visas for which they have applied, and well over half of them [recipients] are issued visas without an interview."


The British Embassy receives in excess of 300 applications every day, and over 97 percent of applicants get visas, said Jack Thompson, consul and head of the visa section of the British Embassy, adding that over 92 percent of visas are issued without an interview within 10 minutes of an officer's seeing the application documents.


"We are not about embassy-bashing," emphasized O'Leary, who has been based in Moscow for over 10 years. "If we want to get positive change, it will only be effected by the participation of Moscow's Western embassies."


Drumming up support for the Charter for Dignity has not been difficult. O'Leary has received a flood of responses from people dismayed by the visa process and the treatment they, family or friends have been subjected to at embassies. They spoke of long lines with few amenities and varying demands for evidence that the applicant is not going to flee the motherland for good - from bank statements to personal correspondence to proof of property ownership.


Another frequent complaint is that applicants are asked unduly intimate questions. Katya, a 24-year-old public relations executive with a British-owned firm, wanted to spend a long weekend in England. She went to the British Embassy to apply for a visa three weeks in advance; she brought a letter from her employer, vouching for her, and another letter from a friend in England. The friend, with whom she had worked in Moscow, was male. During the visa interview, she was asked whether she had intimate relations with him, and whether she could provide some personal correspondence between them. She could not. Now her passport bears the feared deferral-of-application stamp, which she suspects may act as a black mark against her should she apply for a visa again.


A dozen or so members of the charter group are now involved in compiling the details of each embassy's visa policy, proof or testimonies of inconsistencies and proposals for improvements. To facilitate the collection of responses, a web site is expected to be up and running within a few weeks. For now, information is displayed at www.egroups.com/group/charterfordignity.


All embassies in Moscow have their own rules and procedures, Thompson of the British Embassy said. "So you're not comparing apples with apples."


The Irish Embassy said it is not prepared to comment on the matter, but did admit that its visa application for Russians is provided in English only.


One of the main criticisms hurled at the U.S. Embassy has been the long wait applicants must endure outside the building, sometimes in awful weather and with no toilet facilities.


"Our present layout lacks sufficient waiting room space to accommodate all of the applicants at one time," said the U.S. Embassy spokesman. "This is going to change. We're planning to remodel the waiting areas of the consular section at the end of the summer. Our goal is to bring everyone in from the street to a large waiting room with adequate seating and toilet facilities."


The standard requirements for a Russian citizen applying for a visa to an EU country or the U.S. are basically the same - an invitation, application form, three passport photographs, processing fee and passport. But embassies' interpretations of the rules can vary drastically, said Kirilyuk.


"The consular office is given very wide discretion in assessing the evidence," said Kirilyuk, recalling her experience at the U.S. Embassy.


Kirilyuk is writing the text of the charter, which will include references to specific cases as precedents, including her own case. The completed charter will be posted on the Internet, sent to the parliaments of the western countries in question and publicized in other ways. The charter group, which plans to hold its next meeting May 18, has also suggested organizing a letter-writing campaign to members of the parliaments and governments of these countries.


"It is their [consulates'] right to deny a visa," said Kirilyuk, "but it does not remove their obligation to treat a human being with respect."


But the U.S. Embassy spokesman suggested that the group may be focusing more on the exceptions than the rule: "There is a silent majority of consular section customers who receive the services they expect expeditiously and courteously, and their stories never make it into print."