The EU insisted that Russia needed to meet the technical requirements for visa-free travel before a deal could be discussed, but floundered on details.
In 2013, it became clear that Russia would not achieve its goal of having visa-free travel with the EU by the time of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Technical process continued throughout 2013, but the human rights situation in Russia as well as the overall atmosphere of the relationship – made worse by the clash over the Eastern Partnership – prevented the EU from speeding it up. In December, the European Commission published a report that outlined the many outstanding concerns and did not give a clear green light to go ahead. Many member states also rightly insisted that Russia should not get visa freedom sooner than some of the Eastern Partnership countries that have done more to meet the criteria.
European unity briefly collapsed over the contentious issue of so-called service passports. Russia wants thousands of service passport holders to gain visa-free entry to the EU as diplomatic passport holders have since 2007. The EU has been against it, for reasons that have to do with security (there is no good overview of how such passports are given out in Russia), parity (service passports are not very commonly used in the EU countries, although there are exceptions), and fairness (preferential treatment of service passport holders would effectively favour the representatives of the regime, rather than the civil society groups whom the EU nominally wants to endorse). Germany has led the blocking minority on the service passport issue. In March, it seemed to change its mind when foreign and interior ministers wrote to the European Commission asking for visa liberalisation for Russian service passport holders, which caused considerable confusion among other EU member states, but it subsequently backtracked.
The EU could have done a better job of informing the Russian public about the conditions of visa freedom. In this context, the publication in March of the hitherto restricted “common steps” document, which outlines the contours of the technical process, was a step in the right direction.