First opening in the Schengen-regime with Russia

Russia's Borisoglebsk border check-point. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

The first ever agreement on visa-free travel between Russia and a Schengen-member state was signed in Oslo today. The agreement stipulates how the population in the near-border areas can cross the border only by showing their ID-card.


The Norwegian border to Russia will be the first of the external Schengen borders that will be partly open for visa free travel for local inhabitants.
The border to Norway from Russia in the north will be the first ever of the external Schengen-borders towards Russia that will be partly open for visa-free border crossings for locals living in the border area. Photo: Thomas Nilsen.

The agreement between Norway and Russia on Facilitation of Mutual Travel for Border Residents was signed by the two Foreign Ministers Jonas Gahr Støre and Sergei Lavrov.

The agreement will however not become operative before Norway and Russia have established needed infrastructure at their common border crossing point in order to separate travelers with border zone ID-cards from ordinary travelers. That process is pending financing, and Norway has not allocated any means for this work in its 2011 budget.

Also, after the agreement now is signed, it must be ratified by the Russian State Duma before entering force.

The geographical zone from where the population can cross the border without valid visa includes the Norwegian town of Kirkenes and the two Russian towns of Nikel and Zapolyarny on the Kola Peninsula.

Although this is the first agreement that open Schengen for Russians without visa, it is not the first time a Schengen-member state opens its border like this. Similar visa-freedom exists in the Carpathians border areas between Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania.

The Storskog border pass
The Norwegian border station Storskog need to be rebuilt and expanded with new lanes for easier border-crossings for the inhabitants holding a border-zone ID-card. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Locals in Kirkenes welcome the agreement. Since then end of the Cold War, the inhabitants on both sides of the border have established a broad cooperation and the two near-border municipalities Sør-Varanger and Pechenga are maintaining a friendship agreement, including business, culture, education etc.

Head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat located in Kirkenes, Rune Rafaelsen, says the Schengen-border in many ways can be considered to be the new “iron-curtain” in Europe.

- We in Schengen-Europe are far too slow in the process of including Russia into Europe. Today’s agreement is therefore an important step towards abolishing the visa-regime that is hampering the people-to-people cooperation in the Barents Region today, says Rafaelsen.

Other Schengen-member states are following the agreement between Norway and Russia with great interest. Poland, for instance, are negotiating a similar agreement for visa free travel for people in the border areas to the Russian enclave Kaliningrad. Also the two Baltic States Lithuania and Latvia are following what is happening in the northernmost part of Schengen’s external border to Russia with great interest. Estonia on the other hand, said they did not want to prolong an existing visa-free border travel agreement with Russia in the area around Narva when they become a Schengen-member in December 2007.

- The signing of the long-awaited visa-free zone between Norway and Russia is a historic moment for the Schengen territorial space, says Alieen Espiritu, Director of the Barents Institute in Kirkenes. The institute focuses on cross-border cooperation within the Barents Region and participates in a broader project called European Border Dialogs.

- The visa-free border-zone agreement signals that EU can, after all, be flexible about the parameters of what the Schengen Acquis is, and that there is indeed room for maneuver in redefining the rigidity of the Schengen border to Russia, says Aileen Espiritu.

She stress that the visa-free border pass between Norway and Russia is a significant and historic step in visa-free travel in the wider Europe.

Also Rune Rafaelsen applauds. - The agreement makes a really important political signal. It is natural that the first crack in the Schengen-fort comes here in the north. It is just a prolongation of the positive cross-border developments between Russia and Norway within the Barents cooperation that started back in 1993 says Rafaelsen.

Secretary General, Rune Rafaelsen
Rune Rafaelsen, head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, says the agreement is the first step towards visa-freedom between EU and Russia. Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk

The numbers of people from Russia’s Kola Peninsula are queuing up for crossing the border after Norwegian authorities softened the visa-regulation a year ago. Inhabitants of Russia’s northern regions Murmansk and Arkhangelsk can get a multi-entry visa valid for several years to Norway without presenting any invitation upfront.  Now, with the new visa-freedom in the border area, the numbers of border crossers are expected to increase even more.

The town of Zapolyarny and Nikel are located an hour drive from the border and Kirkenes is 15 minutes from the border. So, theoretically, people in the new visa-free border zone can commute across the border.

Map: Google Earth
The border zone area includes the towns of Nikel, Zapolyarny and Kirkenes. Some tens of thosands of people will with the new border zone ID-cards be abel to cross the Schengen border without visas.

The joint Norwegian-Russian proclamation signed by Lavrov and Støre on November 2nd, outline the two countries intentions to improve the actual border-crossing point at Storskog-Borisoglebsk. The proclamation reads that the opening hours will be extended; new biometric identification methods for border-crossers will be introduced; the border stations themselves will be physically upgraded and rebuilt; and maybe most important – the different authorities on the Russian and Norwegian border stations will cooperate better than today.

The border-zone visa-free agreement covers:

• 30 kilometers from the border into Norwegian territory. 30 to 50 kilometers from the border into Russian territory (see map).

• The ID-card can only be obtained by locals that have been living with postal address in the zone for more than 3 years.

• Only inhabitants with citizenship from Russia or a Schengen member state.

• The ID-card will be valid for three years.

• Applications for ID-card will be handled by the Russian consulate general in Kirkenes and the Norwegian consulate general in Murmansk.

• Application period will be 10 days.

• The ID-card will be followed by a fee of €20.

• A person holding the ID-card can stay up to 15 days within the zone on the other side of the border.

• People holding the ID-card will get their own lane with easier procedures at the border-crossing point.

Kirkenes is located on the coast of the Barents Sea, in the cross-roads between Norway, Russia and Finland. The municipality, which has about 10,000 inhabitants, hosts the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and a number of other organisations and companies specialised on cross-border trade and cooperation.

In connection with the development of industrial projects in the Barents Sea, Kirkenes looks set to boost activities within logistics and services. The local port is ice-free all year round and deep enough for large-size vessels.

The town centre of Zapolyarny.
 Zapolyarny on the Kola Peninsula is together with neighbouring Nikel  one of the two Russian towns within the zone where the inhabitants will be allowed to cross the border to Norway without visa. Photo: Thomas Nilsen