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What’s Behind The Suspension of Visa-Free Travel Between Poland and Russia?

What’s Behind The Suspension of Visa-Free Travel Between Poland and Russia?
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What’s Behind The Suspension of Visa-Free Travel Between Poland and Russia?

Maria Zakharova

Maria Zakharova

Spokesperson, Russian Foreign Ministry

”On July 4, 2016, the Polish side temporarily suspended the Agreement on Local Border Traffic under the pretext of holding the NATO Summit in Warsaw and the World Youth Day in Krakow... The events that triggered the above actions by Warsaw have long passed. But the Polish side is not eager to end the impasse, which is very surprising…As of today, Poland does not show interest in resuming the LBT. As a result, people's interests on both sides of the border are affected.”

Partially True
Unrestricted border crossing boosted local economies but Russia ruined it with its hostilities in Ukraine

Over the last few years, Russia has beefed up its military presence along its western border, heightening the security concerns of neighboring NATO members like Poland. Russia’s continuing militarization in the region has been accompanied by at least a dozen violations of the airspace of a number of eastern and western European countries by Russian fighter jets.

Moscow claims its military buildup comes in response to Western actions.

“The situation that is developing in the western strategic direction requires us to continuously develop the combat capabilities of our forces and their deployment systems,” Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry leadership on July 24.

​However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Moscow-backed armed conflict in eastern Ukraine show that the Kremlin started the militarization in the region, creating a security threat and prompting the governments of Poland and the Baltic states to end visa-free travel to and from Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia stationed troops and military equipment inside Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, without their consent. During July’s NATO summit in Brussels, the alliance’s 29 member states issued a declaration calling for the withdrawal of the Russian forces stationed in those three countries.

Poland -- Polish and Russian border signs are seen on the border with Russia in Zytkiejmy, February 9, 2017
Poland -- Polish and Russian border signs are seen on the border with Russia in Zytkiejmy, February 9, 2017

The verdict for this fact check is “Partially True” because the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was right when she said that “people's interests on both sides of the border are affected” by the temporary suspension of the Agreement on Local Border Traffic between Russian and Poland. Any calls for reestablishing free movement across the border between Russia and EU in Eastern Europe are welcomed by ordinary people in the region.

“Since 2012 the [Gdansk and Kaliningrad] sides have enjoyed increased success in their social, economic and cultural relations. Issuing easily accessible permits to local residents to cross the border has boosted mutual contacts, benefitted the tourism and retail sectors, and spurred scientific collaboration, youth exchanges, and cooperation among NGOs,” Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz wrote in a Dec. 2016 blog post.

He added that in July 2016, the Polish government suspended the intergovernmental agreements on border traffic with Ukraine and Russia, while reinstating a “visa-free small traffic” regime on the Polish-Ukrainian border. Ultimately, after years of talks and the signing of agreements on migration and border security, the EU lifted the visa requirements for Ukraine in June 2017.

​If Moscow truly wanted visa liberalization with the EU, that could have been done a long time ago. The political momentum on both sides was ideal in 2010, when the European countries and the European Parliament backed this idea with a “road map” for visa-free travel to the EU.

Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confrontation with the West began with Ukraine’s political uprising in 2014, the Russian authorities tepidly received calls by European politicians and lawmakers for Russia to reform its migration policy.

Had Russia wanted a visa-free deal with the EU back in 2010, it would have issued biometric passports, adopted a law on personal data protection and strengthened border security by accepting the international conventions on the repatriation of illegal immigrants. Russia also never committed to treat visiting EU citizens fairly – in particular, by abolishing the infamous registration requirement, a bureaucratic procedure left over from the Soviet era.

Obligatory registration for foreigners visiting Russia was in force even during the 2018 World Cup.

Meanwhile, only one of the aforementioned preconditions was fulfilled – issuance of biometric passports for Russian citizens.

A joint statement by the 28 EU leaders on March 6, 2014 condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine called for freezing the visa-free travel talks with Russia that had been practically halted since 2011.