In its usual bureaucratic way, the European Union is sleepwalking into a huge blunder in its relations with Russia.

The EU’s regular summit with Russian leaders opened in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg this week. The EU -- and Germany, in particular -- wants to sign a new visa-facilitation agreement with Russia, the EU’s third-largest trade partner after the U.S. and China, taking an important step toward eventual visa-free travel in Europe.

The EU’s representatives in Yekaterinburg will be negotiating this visa deal on behalf of the Schengen area, a borderless zone in Europe that includes most, but not all, EU nations, plus a few from outside, such as Switzerland and Norway. This will make visas cheaper and easier for many Russians to acquire.

Ominously, though, it also means the EU may be about to free up travel for the roughly 15,000 Russian bureaucrats who hold biometric “service passports.” These people represent the beating heart of President Vladimir Putin’s state and include officials from the Kremlin, government ministries and the feared security forces, which Russians call “the organs.”

Giving these people visa-free travel would reward them and Putin for their increasingly repressive policies. It would be a mistake.

Emerging Dictatorship

Russia is no longer an emerging democracy but an emerging dictatorship since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 and redefined Russian authoritarianism. The protest movement that arose in response to abuse in the election, which returned Putin to power, has been crushed through arrests, trials, political imprisonment and the potential sentencing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny to a decade behind bars. The space for free speech has been squeezed by a terrifyingly vague new treason law and punitive fines for any protests that the authorities deem illegal.

The state, represented by those same 15,000 bureaucrats, is also trying to smother flourishing nongovernment organizations. NGOs now have to register as “foreign agents” if they take money from abroad. They are also subjected to legal harassment and inspection raids that make it impossible for them to work, unless they switch to Russian sources of revenue, which the state can better control.

Putin has empowered a political police force known as the Investigative Committee, which has taken the lead in harassing the opposition. An influential economist, Sergei Guriev, who is neither a politician nor a billionaire, has had to flee the country for his pro-opposition stance. He left after being interrogated by the Investigative Committee.

Amid all this gloomy change, the EU hasn’t altered its Russia policy. Instead it is continuing an engagement strategy that made some sense under the sham liberalism of President Dmitry Medvedev, but is hopelessly mismatched to Putin’s repression.

If the EU decides to adopt the new visa-facilitation agreement, it will be moving its Russia policy in the opposite direction to that of the U.S. In December, Congress barred U.S. entry to those Russian officials who were believed to have been involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was in custody. Magnitsky exposed large-scale corruption among a group of Interior Ministry officials.

The EU’s new visa agreement would be the reverse of the Magnitsky list. It would also reward the people engaged in building a repressive state in Russia by giving them easy access to European shopping that other Russians don’t enjoy. Europe might even grant visa-free access to people who are on the U.S. blacklist, if they hold the biometric service passports.

European Response

Securing visa-free travel for bureaucrats would mark a significant victory for Putin. He would be able to sell it as proof that there are no consequences for his increasingly vicious crackdown on dissent.

Europe should instead unilaterally liberalize its own visa procedures for Russians who aren’t government officials, for example by making five-year visas available to frequent travelers. Failing that, the EU should take a principled stand and freeze visa negotiations, even though that wouldn’t be popular within Russia, where it would be seen as halting progress toward open borders.

Halting the negotiations would signal to Putin that he can’t get what he wants from Europe at the same time as he tramples on dissent. It would also show the Russian establishment, as a whole, that repression has costs for them. If the EU makes the error of agreeing to visa-free travel for Russia’s bureaucrats, there is some hope that the European Parliament -- which has to sign off on the deal and has signaled that it backs a Magnitsky list for Europe -- will refuse its approval.

Yet the EU leaders in Yekaterinburg shouldn’t let this reach parliament. Agreeing to visa-free travel for Russia’s bureaucrats would demonstrate that European politicians, for all their frequent blustering about the need to protect universal human rights, are as cynical as the ones in the Kremlin. This is, of course, what Putin has long claimed to be the case.

(Ben Judah is the author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ben Judah at bjudah@esiweb.org

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net