Bowling Together: Young Russians and a Visa-Free Regime

Aerial View of Kremlin and Environs

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Kirill Shamiev – Dec. 9, 2020)

Kirill Shamiev is a junior research fellow at the Center for Comparative Governance Studies, Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, and a PhD candidate in public policy, Central European University, Vienna.

The results of President Vladimir Putin’s June 2020 referendum on amendments to the 1993 Constitution were met with fanfare by the Presidential Administration. Yet almost 60 percent of Russians below the age of thirty view developments in Russia negatively and were on average against the amendments, according to the Levada Center.

Younger Russians, those raised after the Soviet Union collapsed, readily use the internet, speak foreign languages, and are culturally similar to their Western peers. Nonetheless, their freedoms are curtailed not only by the Kremlin but by policies promulgated by the West as well. The humiliating visa regime does not allow them travel to the West for tourism, which limits their personal engagement with other cultures.

The West has a chance to use the generational change in Russia to advance peaceful relations now and a stronger cooperation with Russia later. Allowing young Russians to freely explore the West before they settle into adult concerns will help Russians feel more attached to the Western path of development and can counteract the Kremlin’s destructive framing of its neighbors.

So Alike, Yet So Distant

There are about 40 million Russians below the age of twenty-five, 15 million of whom are aged fifteen to twenty-five. The oldest were only nineteen when the crisis in Ukraine broke out. Political and ecological protests of the past five years have highlighted Russia’s changing political demographics: more and more recent school graduates are joining various movements or engaging in civic activities. A recent study by Maria Snegovaya, Denis Volkov, and Stepan Goncharov on Russian youth and civic engagement finds that younger Russians are less paternalistic, more entrepreneurial, and more willing to turn to the internet for information. They generally have a relatively positive view of the West and are open to the outside world.

Putin’s Russia is marked by a growing generational split. The Kremlin continues to rely for acceptance on the older generations, while the younger ones are largely disengaged from politics because they do not see a place for themselves in Russia’s existing political structures.

Young Russians who have traveled abroad at least once tend to identify more with Europe and have a broader worldview than their peers who never left the country, a recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found. Young people notice that Western countries are better at providing basic infrastructure, health care, and opportunities for personal development than the Russian government. As Jill Dougherty put it, for young Russians “the West is a place where things actually work.” But only a fraction of them get a chance to witness it firsthand. The United States and Western and Central European countries have an opportunity to bring more Russians in. One way of doing this is to liberalize travel for Russians, starting with those below the age of twenty-five.

The Visa Curtain

Visa barriers, including long and cumbersome procedures at foreign consulates, fears of hostile reactions at destination points, and unwillingness to travel too far, were among the chief reasons that prevented Russian citizens from traveling abroad after 2014, the World Tourism Organization showed.

Given their restricted opportunities to cross into the United States or the EU, many Russians, including younger ones, visit Turkish beaches or the Russian resort city of Sochi rather than plan a trip that requires a visa. Visa procedures often include a lengthy process of filling in an application form; collecting bank statements, employment certificates, and proof of travel accommodations; and buying tickets and paying a fee. All of that should be completed at least two weeks before the trip.

The numerous “visa agents” who hang around in front of visa centers to “help” with the process are a market response to the depressing situation around the free movement of people in Greater Europe. Russians are willing to pay agents to fill in the application, attach the documents, and submit a pile of them to the visa center to avoid doing so themselves. “You are not European enough to freely get in,” is the signal coming to Russians from the US and the countries of the Schengen Area, the twenty-six European counties that have no border controls between themselves but require a visa for outsiders to enter. Yet younger Russians are culturally much like their counterparts in the West.

The EU Institute for Security studies forecasted that visa liberalization would result in a stark increase in positive views of the EU, mostly because of the firsthand peer-to-peer experience, growing distrust of the national state-supported media, and the positive experience of enjoying European standards of living. The United States and its allies need to counter the Kremlin’s hostile acts while building a positive image of the West among ordinary Russians, Victoria Nuland, former US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, emphasized recently. She suggested the US government and European countries could permit visa-free travel for Russians between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two and offer internships for young Russians to work in American and European firms. The upper age limit should probably be higher to allow Russians to enroll in master’s degree programs in US and European universities. Ideally, with time, the age limit should be raised.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Western governments will have to revitalize their tourism industries, which were badly hit by the calamity. Russia is the world’s fourth-largest source of tourists. The inflow of young Russian tourists could become one of the supplements of the economic revival packages. Russian youth are unlikely to go to expensive Western European capitals, but the hostels, clubs, bars, and museums of Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, or Tallin may become top destinations for young people from major Russian towns. Surprisingly, the Kremlin is one step ahead in bringing tourists into the country—the recently introduced electronic visas let the citizens of fifty-two countries, including Schengen Area member states, apply at least four days before the trip and do not ask for proof of accommodations and ticketings. A similar liberalizing of the visa regime for young Russians wishing to visit the West should help revive the Western economies.

The current EU-Russia visa regime stands at a crossroads. Liberalizing the visa regime for Russians starting with the younger cohorts can become a tool to bring them closer to the West while simultaneously countering the Kremlin’s malign narratives. It would also help revitalize the Western tourism industry so strongly hit by the pandemic. The young Russian generation will eventually grow up, and the way they view the world will depend on their experience. When the Kremlin shuts doors, the West should open them.

[article also appeared at wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/bowling-together-young-russians-and-visa-free-regime]