Norwegian visa-bureaucracy hampers cross-border development

NIKEL: People in the Russian border-town can see Norway from their kitchen windows, but find it much easier to apply for visa to Finland when traveling abroad. Obtaining a Pomor-visa to Norway requires personal attendance at the consulate general in Murmansk, a distance far longer than the border itself.


“I am sure three times as many people in Nikel would apply for visa to Norway if we could apply here in Nikel,” says Tatiana Bazanova, head of international relations in the municipality of Pechenga.

Tatiana can see Norway in the horizon from the entrance to the local town hall in Nikel.

Earlier, all people in Nikel could send their applications for a Norwegian visa with a local travel agency or a courier to the visa-section at the Norwegian consulate general in Murmansk. The travel agency arranged invitations and took care of all practical paper work. With the introduction of so-called Pomor-visas, a multi-entry visa to Norway issued without a prior invitation, personal attendance at the application desk in Murmansk is required.

Full day travel
“Driving back and forth to Murmansk takes a full day. And the consulate is only open when people normally are at work,” says Tatiana Bazanova.

“If a family want to go to Norway, they first need to ask their employer to get a day off to drive to Murmansk to deliver their visa-applications. The same goes for school children,” Bazanova explains. She is wondering why Norway has so strict rules for inhabitants in the near-border areas.

To reach the opening hours at the consulate, people will have to take the 6 am bus from Nikel and will not be home again before late evening. The consulate is closed in the weekends and other public holidays.

Easy Finland
Finland does not require applicants for Schengen-visa to come in person to Murmansk for delivering the papers.

“It is inconvenient to apply for a visa to Norway,” says Lena Uksusova, manger at Barents Travel, a local tourist agency in Nikel. “Finland is much easier, you can apply for a six month multiple entry visa without personally travelling to Murmansk,” she says.

Over the first eight months of 2011, Finland’s consulate branch office in Murmansk issued 25.977 visas. Norway’s Consulate General in Murmansk issued less than half; 12.044 visas.

“No doubt, far more people in Nikel and neighbouring Zapolyarny will travel to Norway if the visa rules are simplified. But, we have never been invited to the Norwegian consulate general in Murmansk to discuss the visa-regime,” says Lena Uksusova.

Wants local visa day
Tatiana Bazanova in the local administration suggests that the Norwegian consulate general could come to Nikel once a week and have a visa-day where locals can deliver their applications or ask questions regarding the visa-procedures.

Norway’s consulate general in Murmansk is aware of the challenges people in the near-border areas have regarding the visa application rules.

“We are aware that it is not always easy for people living in far distance from Murmansk to apply for Pomor visa,” says Consul General Øyvind Nordsletten.

“As the rules are now, Norwegian authorities require personal attendance. However, we assume that part of the problem will be solved when the system of visa-free travel ID-cards comes into effect next year,” Øyvind Nordsletten says.

Norwegian Consul General in Murmansk Øyvind Nordsletten.
Norway’s Consul General in Murmansk, Øyvind Nordsletten says Pomor-visas count for half of all visas issued to Norway. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Last year, Norway and Russia announced an agreement for visa-free travel for residents in a 30-kilomtre zone on each side of the border.

People want Schengen-visa
“We have heard rumours about the visa-free travels for 2-3 years now, but so far it is only talks, nothing concrete,” says Barents Travel manger Lena Uksusova.

“If the visa free travel regime comes into effect, I do however still think most people will prefer to apply for Pomor-visa,” says Tatiana Bazanova pointing to the fact that the ID-card for border zone residence only gives people access to the Kirkenes-area on the Norwegian side. Bazanova says most people in Nikel will like to drive further, including Vadsø and the Finnish shops in Näätamö. For that, a Schengen-visa is needed.

“The arrangement with Pomor-visas have become popular,” says Consul General Øyvind Nordsletten explaining that over half of all visas the consulate are issuing fall into this category.

No problem for officials
The other half of Norwegian Schengen-visas issued in Murmansk are to people that holds an invitation from a Norwegian partner. Applicants with such invitation do not have to show up in person at the consulate when delivering the papers.

Tatiana Bazanova holds a multiple entry visa to Norway based on an invitation from the municipality’s friendship town of Kirkenes on the western side of the border.

“There are no problems for us participating in official cooperation. The challenges are for all those thousands of ordinary citizens here in Nikel and Zapolyarny that don’t already have contacts in Norway that can issue invitations,” says Bazanova.

Want to boost people-to-people contacts
Most people BarentsObserver meets in Nikel believe a simplification of the visa-application system will increase the contact between Norwegians and Russians.

“It is too complicated to get a visa to Norway today,” says Ivan Barbolin, head of the local citizens group Active-Nikel.

“We are a group of volunteers working to improve quality of life here in Nikel. A network including Norwegians will surely improve cross-border contacts,” says Ivan Barbolin. He believes businesses on both side of the border will get a boost when people can travel more freely.

Ivan Barbolin hopes for better visa-application ordiance for normal people in Nikel that would like to see how life is on the Norwegian side of the border. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

“But most important; people-to-people contact will improve,” he says.

“The system today is so that both I and my wife will have to go to Murmansk to apply for visa to Norway. Even our few weeks old baby must come to the consulate if applying for visa,” smiles Ivan.

Single-entry visa first
What makes the Pomor-visa system even more complicated for people in Nikel is that first time applicants can only get a single-entry visa before they can apply for multi-entry visa. So, Nikel-citizens will actually have to drive all the way to Murmansk two times to deliver their papers.

- That is a lot of travel back and forth to Murmansk just to go for shopping or making cross-border friendship contacts in Norway, says Ivan Barbolin.

On the Norwegian side of the border, the Barents Secretariat has recently sent a letter to Norway’s Minister of Justice asking for changes in the way visas for Russian citizens are issued.

Few have been to Norway
A survey done on initiative of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat among citizens in Nikel and Zapolyarny shows that less than 25 percent of the inhabitants in the area have ever been to Norway. Near 80 percent of the respondents answered that they are likely to cross the border if it becomes easier to get a visa or if the visa system as such are abolished.

The border to Norway is only some few kilomters west of Nikel and the border check-point on the road is a half-hour drive.

Wants to change
“Norway is probably the strictest reader of the Schengen-regulations,” says Rune Rafaelsen, head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

“Why can’t we issue visas like Finland is doing,” asks Rafaelsen.

Secretary General, Rune Rafaelsen
Rune Rafaelsen says Norway’s way of reading the Schengen-regulation hampers cross-border contact in the north. Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk

In the letter to the Minister of Justice, the secretariat suggests that the current rules requiring applicants to show up in person at the consulate should be eliminated.

“We can do like Finland. Their way of reading the Schengen-regulation don’t result in more illegal Russians to Finland. They just get more contact and make more business,” says Rune Rafaelsen.

“Easier visa-application system will increase commerce and contacts between Norway and Russia in the north and that is the key to success in building trust and confidence among people and countries with earlier near-closed borders, like it was up here during the Cold War. Easier visa-regime will be to the benefit of both countries,”says Rune Rafaelsen.

The minister has not yet replied to the letter.