Border zone signs are seen at the Finnish-Russian border in Salla, northern Finland, January 20, 2016.
European Union countries are split over whether to ban Russian tourists from visiting the bloc, a measure Kyiv has called for to punish Moscow for its war on Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, first called for the travel ban in an August 8 interview with the Washinton Post newspaper, arguing that Russian ought to “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”.
His foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, later added that “Russians massively support the war, applaud the missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and the killing of Ukrainians. So let Russian tourists enjoy Russia.”
The Kremlin has branded this demand “irrational”, but EU foreign affairs ministers are scheduled to discuss the issue during an informal meeting in Prague on 30-31 August.
Finns and Baltics back the move
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Among the EU countries that have already taken steps to reduce Russian tourism is Finland.
The Scandinavian country, which shares a land border with Russia, typically processes some 1,000 visa applications a day from its neighbour but has decided to reduce the number of visas it issues to Russian tourists to just 10% of that volume, so to about 100, from 1 September.
Since the EU has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft as part of its sanctions packages, Finland has seen an increase in transit with Russian tourists passing through it to reach other EU states on short-stay Schengen visas (90 days per 180-day period).
Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, has justified the move by saying it is “not fair that Russian citizens can enter Europe, the Schengen area, to do tourism (…) while Russia is killing people in Ukraine”.
Finland’s upcoming, unprecedented measure, “has little chance of being adopted by the EU,” Cyrille Bret of the Jacque Delors Institute, “but it should appeal to a large part of public opinion, beyond those countries that are historically suspicious of Russia”.
Schengen visas in the bullseye
The 26 countries making up the Schengen free movement area — 22 EU states, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Liechtenstein — received 3 million visa applications in 2021. Russians were the most numerous with 536,000 applications of which 3% were rejected.
Refusals, which can be appealed, must be justified (threat to the security, public order or international relations of one of the States).
Lithuania, which borders Belarus, an ally of Moscow, has since 10 March only issued visas to Russian and Belarus nationals on humanitarian ground or other reasons seen as international obligations.
The country’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, wrote in an op-ed for Politico published on Friday that “it’s a solution that has proven both effective and fair”, arguing it provides protection to people under threat.
But he noted that “problems remain”, flagging that many Russian tourists denied visas by Baltic member states, apply in another Schengen country to then travel to countries closest to Russia and Belarus, including Lithuania, for a spot of tourism.
Estonia has also deplored the fact that it could not deny entry “to persons holding a visa from another Schengen country”.
“Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right,” Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said.
The Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency and has put the topic on the agenda of the next foreign ministers’ meeting, no longer issues visas to ordinary Russian citizens.
“In this period of Russian aggression, which the Kremlin is stepping up, there can be no question of tourism as usual for Russian citizens,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said.
Like Prague and the Baltic States, Poland has tightened its visa regime for Russians since the beginning of the offensive (total halt or for tourists only), with exceptions such as for humanitarian, study, or work reasons.
Denmark’s Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofod, has also signalled that his country “will look at the possibility of introducing restrictions that will further reduce the number of Russian tourist visas” if EU member states fail to agree on a common position, in comments relayed by TV2 on Thursday.
According to the broadcaster, 141 tourist visas were granted to Russian citizens by Denmark in the first 5 months of 2022, a sharp increase from the 49 recorded for the whole of 2021.
Spare the Russian people
Yet, for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz a limitation of tourist visas would penalise “all the people who flee Russia because they disagree with the Russian regime”.
Portugal has also said that sanctions should be aimed primarily at “penalising the Russian war machine and not the Russian people”.
A view shared by Bret from the Jacques Delors Institute, who stated that with a travel ban on ordinary Russian nationals “the EU would be contradicting itself”.
“This measure is contrary to the freedom of movement and to the sanctions policy followed until now,” he added.
Asked about the issue, the European Commission recalled that the EU has partially suspended the issuing of short-stay visas under an EU-Russia agreement, banning access to certain categories linked to the Russian regime such as official delegations, members of the government, holders of diplomatic passports, business leaders, etc.
The European Commission also emphasised the need to protect dissidents, journalists and their families, calling for cases to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
“Our primary objective is to ensure that any measures that are taken are coordinated and promote our EU objectives,” Anitta Hipper, the Commission’s spokesperson on home affairs, migration and internal security, told reporters on Thursday.
A total of 1,214 Russian officials, including President Vladimir, have also been declared persona non grata and are thus barred from visiting or transiting through the 27-country bloc.