US scales down visa services in Russia

Move follows Putin's order to cut staffing; work travellers and tourists will be hit hard

MOSCOW • The US diplomatic mission to Russia says it plans to reduce visa services sharply because of Moscow's order to cut its staff, the latest in a series of tit-for-tat penalties by the two countries.

The move, which will hit Russian business travellers, tourists and students, was the latest in a series of bilateral measures that have driven relations to a new post-Cold War low, thwarting hopes on both sides that they might improve after President Donald Trump took office in January.

The embassy said in a statement that, beginning today, it would suspend the issuance of all non-immigrant visas - like those for business, work and tourism - and that from Sept 1 it would issue such visas only in Moscow "for as long as our staffing levels are reduced".

Beginning on Monday, it would be cancelling a number of appointments and asking applicants to reschedule.

"Capacity for interviews in the future will be greatly reduced because we have had to greatly reduce our staffing levels to comply with the Russian government's requirement," the embassy said in a statement.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Sergey Lavrov, said during a news conference in Moscow that the announcement was "another attempt to make the Russian citizen angry about the actions of the Russian government".

Mr Lavrov said that he doubted the embassy's justification for the cutbacks in visa services.

"The American diplomatic school, diplomatic service, just as the Russian one, has great traditions and experience in preparing professional staff," he said.

He added that the US argument that its diplomatic workers cannot issue the same number of visas with reduced staff disrespected the "capabilities and possibilities of the American diplomatic service".

Mr Lavrov said his ministry was studying the matter and would have a response at a later date.

Last month, the US Congress imposed a fresh round of sanctions on Russia for its meddling in elections and its aggressive behaviour towards neighbouring countries.

In response, President Vladimir Putin ordered the US Embassy to cut 755 positions in the country - roughly two-thirds - by Sept 1.

Staff reductions have already begun, the embassy said.

The US Embassy and the consulates in St Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg issued 182,958 non-immigrant visas in 2016, 136,665 of those in Moscow, according to an official report.

Under the new procedures, Russians in or near Moscow will have to wait as long as six months for a US visa.

For those in distant regions, especially the Far East, travel to the United States will be much more difficult, if not impossible.

A Reuters reporter in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains, witnessed a man pleading unsuccessfully with US consulate staff to accept his visa documents a day early. On hearing a refusal, the man was described as erupting in anger.

"They have direct flights to the US, but, of course, few people will want to travel over the whole country to Moscow to get a visa first," Ms Irina Tyurina, a spokesman for the Russian Tourism Industry Union, told the Interfax news agency.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'US scales down visa services in Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe