Monday, 28 April 2014, marked the first day that Moldovan citizens no longer needed visas to travel to Europe’s Schengen area countries. Moldovans celebrated with a concert in the center of Chisinau, while Russia quietly took note of a setback in the increasingly competitive game of strategic citizenship and visa policy in Europe. Russia’s practice of naturalizing Russian-speaking residents of disputed territories such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and most recently Crimea has been met with increasingly successful EU-led “Visa Liberalisation Dialogues” with the countries claiming sovereignty over those territories: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

In Transnistria, where many residents have dual Russian and Moldovan citizenship, the attractiveness of visa-free travel now and the prospect of economic integration with the EU later may eventually normalize the region’s troubled relationship with Chisinau. Such a development would run contrary to Russian interests, especially in light of deteriorating relations between Russia and the EU. Moscow is very aware of this, and is keen to discourage old allies from turning their back to mother Russia through its own visa policy revisions. Less than a week before the EU-Moldova visa liberalisation agreement took force, the Kremlin announced plans to terminate its visa-free regime and preferential trade arrangements with Montenegro. Despite its history of close ties with Moscow and significant Russian investment, the small Balkan country recently supported US and EU sanctions against Russia.

In Ukraine, accelerated EU visa liberalisation negotiations have the potential to increase support for the new government, even in eastern Ukraine, if concluded quickly enough. Concrete achievements that are relatively easy to implement, such as visa-free travel, can demonstrate that the new administration is capable of delivering results that previous regimes were unable to provide. As the country increasingly moves in the direction of civil war, advantages of national unity must be clear and credible in order to sway those who have not yet taken sides.

Unlike many economic incentives, visa-free travel is available immediately and directly to citizens once it is established, and conversely, it is felt immediately if taken away. As such, it is a powerful foreign policy tool which the EU and Russia are using more and more strategically and increasingly in competition with each other. While it is not yet clear to what extent visa and passport rules can change geopolitical realities on their own, it is evident that they have become instruments of choice in European powers’ diplomatic toolboxes.

By Marco Funk

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