From 14th September, Russians will have to personally show up at a Schengen consular station to give finger prints and photo in order to obtain visas. Russia is following suit and will soon introduce similar requirements for Schengen citizens.
That could prove to be another major stubling stone for cooperation between Russia and the neighboring countries.
“The new rules will definitely result in a drop in traveling”, Andrey Shalyov, Norwegian Honorary Consul in Arkhangelsk says to BarentsObserver. “This could be dramatic because it coincides with the current difficult situation in Russia, the weaker ruble and the continuing shrink in real incomes”, he adds.
He believes that an estimated ten percent travel reduction, indicated by newspaper Kommersant, might be far too modest.
Shalyov, who is also leader of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat’s offices in Russia, has for two decades worked hard for extended cooperation between Russia and Norway.
Consequences will be especially dire for people living far away from the consulates, he argues. “We often work with quite big groups of people all of whom now personally will have to come to the visa center which could be many kilometers away. Imagine for example a football team from Kotlas going to a tournament to Tromso. They will have to go 500 kilometers to Arkhangelsk to give fingerprints, then go back home and wait for visas and only after that make their long trip to Northern Norway.”
“This will be a very time- and money-consuming process and I definitely think many of our projects will suffer”, Shalyov regrets.
Marit Jacobsen, leader of the visa department at the Norwegian Consulate General in Murmansk, admits that traveling distances to the consular stations for many people will be a challenge. However, besides that, the introduction of biometric visas should not pose any threat to cross-border cooperation in the region, she argues.
“The visa applicants give their fingerprints only when applying for the first time and the data are stored for five years after the expiry of the visa”, she says. “This means that personal attendance will not be required when people renew their visas”, she adds.
Jacobsen stresses that the introduction of biometric visas is not related to the current difficult political relations between Russia and the EU. The new requirement has been planned for a number of years and was original to be introduced already in 2013, she underlines.
The service fee for the biometric visa imposed by the Visa Center will be €24 euro, three euro higher than for the previous visa. In addition comes a €35 fee imposed by the consular station. The new visas will be issued in the same number of days as before, Jacobsen confirms. She and her colleagues at the General Consulate in Murmansk are now working full steam with preparing for the new system.
Only individuals under the age of 12 will be omitted from the requirement.
Norway, not a member of the EU but still part of the Schengen agreement, has over a number of years taken measures to liberalize its visa policies towards neighboring Russia. All Russians living in the neighboring northwest Russian regions of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk are entitled to get multi-entry visa for up to five years without invitation.
The country also offers free-of charge visas for people involved in cross-border projects part of the Barents Cooperation, a beneficial arrangement for sport clubs, cultural organizations and other stakeholders in the regional people-to-people cooperation.
In addition, Norway and Russia have since 2011 had a special visa-free small border traffic agreement which is available for anyone living in a 30 km zone along the border.
Visa and traveling facilitation has resulted in a many-year boom in border crossing. As illustrated with figures from Patchwork Barents, the regional data portal, the number of travelers crossing the border multiplied in few years. Only in 2014, the growth came to a halt.