Russia-EU advance over visa-free travel – Medvedev

Jose Manuel Barroso (R), Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Herman Van Rompuy (AFP Photo / Alexander Nemenov)
President Dmitry Medvedev has said he is satisfied with the progress achieved in talks between Russia and the European Union over visa-free travel. However, a lot of work on the matter is still ahead.

According to Medvedev, a step-by-step plan to switch over to visa-free travel will be agreed by the sides by the end of July. The president was speaking at a media conference that followed a two-day Russia-EU summit in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Medvedev said that currently experts are working on a package of measures to create conditions to scrap visa travel.

"We have made progress, but a great deal of work has yet to be done," he said. “We are pragmatic and understand that it cannot be done in a year or two.”

However, Medvedev said he was pleased with the development of the negotiations process, adding that even a year ago he was not that optimistic on the issue. According to the plan, at the first stage visa restrictions would be eased for several categories of Russian citizens, such as students, people who travel a lot for business needs, and residents of the Russian westernmost exclave Kaliningrad.

As for the latter, Medvedev expressed hope that in the near future the region’s citizens would be able to travel to the EU “practically without visas”, but using special documents instead. "We are close to the conclusion of the negotiations on the issue," Medvedev added. If the agreement is reached, residents of several regions of Poland would also get travel preference.

By the decision of the highest leadership, the 27th Russia-EU summit was held behind closed doors. Following the talks, Medvedev and the EU leaders summed up the results at the media conference on Friday.

Watch the full video of the news conference at the Russia-EU summit

The list of topics discussed includes the partnerships between the sides for modernization, energy cooperation, possibilities of visa-free travel, security issues, the situation in North Africa, and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Medvedev said that there are good chances to conclude the negotiations on Russia joining the WTO. The talks have been going on for 17 years “and we all are terribly sick of it”.The president noted that no breakthrough has been reached this year, even though the sides have yet to agree only on some minor issues.

“I have called on our partners in the EU to finally complete these talks in about a month, so that by the end of the year we could get to the procedure of signing documents on Russia’s accession to the WTO. I can frankly say that the chances for that are very high. And everything will depend on our ability to listen to each other,” Medvedev said at the media conference. He pointed out that joining the organization is important not only for Russia, but also for other WTO member states.

Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, assured that the negotiating sides “are doomed to success” and vowed to continue work with the aim to settle the issue by the end of 2010.

As for pressing international issues, such as regional conflicts in North Africa, the Middle East and also the Iranian nuclear problem, the EU and Moscow share “similar or the same views”, president Medvedev observed.

Van Rompuy added that the sides are unanimous on the situation in Libya: Muammar Gaddafi’s regime must leave and the country should move to democracy. “[Libyan] people should choose the leadership and decide on their own the country’s territorial integrity,” he said.

Journalists, though, were keener to talk about more down-to-earth problems, such as lifting a ban on the import of European vegetables that Russia imposed following a deadly outbreak of E. coli in Europe. One of the reporters wondered whether the officials were served vegetables during their meals on Thursday and Friday and if yes – where they came from.

“Yes, we did eat vegetables yesterday (during an informal dinner) and today (during a working breakfast). There were various tomatoes on the menu. I don’t know where they were from. We’ll wait and see,” Medvedev joked.

On a more serious note, the Russian leader said that the vegetable issue was discussed at the summit and it was agreed that Moscow will lift the import ban.

“We are ready to lift the ban on European vegetables after we are provided with sufficient guarantees by the EU. That much is certain. The Russian and the European health officials are finalizing a certificate that proves the safety of the supplied products – this is a good result,” he said.

The EU was represented by Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council; José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission; Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; and Karel De Gucht, Commissioner for Trade. From Russia’s side, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Minister of Economic Development Elvira Nabiullina along with President Medvedev are taking part in the summit.

On the eve of the official part of the summit, the heads of the delegations had an informal dinner at the Rukavishnikov Estate Park and Museum in Nizhny Novgorod and took a voyage along the Volga River.

Russia-EU summits are held twice a year: once in Russia and also in the country holding the EU's rotating presidency. The previous meeting took place in Brussels on December 7, 2010. Nizhny Novgorod, the host of the current event, is the fifth largest city in Russia.