Ban Russian tourists? The European Union is divided over visa restrictions for ordinary Russians.


Brussels – With fighting raging in eastern Ukraine and Europe bracing for a war-induced slump, should Russians be allowed to enjoy the end of summer in southern France? Shopping for luxury goods in Italy? Visiting family in Finland?

These questions will be part of a discussion among the foreign ministers of EU member states who meet this week in an informal meeting in Prague. While the countries of the European Union were united in Russian flights banned From its airspace and location More than 1200 people On the sanctions list, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, the blanket ban on Russian tourists is proving even more divisive.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing in one direction. “Let them live in their own world until they change their philosophy,” said V An interview with the Washington Post This month. “This is the only way to influence Putin.”

Calls are growing to ban EU visas for Russians, but not all Ukrainians agree

Zelensky has support from the countries of the European Union that share a border with Russia – the Baltic states and Finland – as well as from Poland and the Czech Republic.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, in an email response to an email query, said the travel ban is “another way to get our message across to the Russian people that the Kremlin must stop the genocidal war against the Ukrainian people.” “People change their way of thinking once their privileges are cut off and their well-being is affected.”

But other members of the European Union, notably Germany and France, are vehemently opposed to this idea. They say it would be unfair and unwise to punish all Russians for what Call German Chancellor Olaf Schultz Putin’s war. They argue that visa restrictions may reduce the declining number of escape routes for critics, could trap people in the Kremlin’s echo chamber, and play into allegations of Western persecution.

An EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks ahead of the Prague meeting.

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Wednesday’s hearing is unlikely to determine who should be allowed to visit and on what terms. A second EU diplomat familiar with the debate said it would be an informal start of the “discussion”, not the last word on what, if any, comes next.

One possibility The compromise is the complete suspension of the 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia, which will make obtaining tourist visas more difficult and costly for Russian citizens, According to diplomats.

Although Zelensky suggested in his interview with Post that travel restrictions should apply to all Russians, including expatriates, there appears to be little support for such a move.

Most of the discussion centers around short-stay visas, which allow travel for up to 90 days throughout the 26-country Schengen area. More than 4 million of those visas were issued in Russia in 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic, according to EU numbers.

Member states are discussing how to keep their doors open to human rights activists and dissidents, as well as whether and how to create exceptions for groups such as family members, students, and scholars.

Since the Russian invasion, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia Estonia has stopped issuing most short-stay visas to Russian citizens. In addition, Estonia moved to the Champions Previously issued short stay visasLatvia requires Russian travelers entering on current visas to sign statements opposing war with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Finland announced that it will reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent, starting Thursday.

“It is not true that at the same time that Russia is waging a brutal and savage war of aggression in Europe, Russians can lead a normal life, travel in Europe, and be tourists. This is not true,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin For Finnish Public Broadcasting Channel.

This summer, Europeans took over the news reports of Russian luxury cars at Helsinki Airport. With a widespread ban on Russian flights, Russians wanting to vacation in Europe had to travel to neighboring countries and fly from there.

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But Finland and the Baltic states say there is a lot they can do on their own to curb Russian tourism and avoid it being misused as a transit route. Officials complain that many Russian tourists come on short-stay visas issued by other Schengen countries.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis wrote: “We must say a clear ‘No’ to the free Russian passengers at the border. In an opinion piece for Politico which called for “visa solidarity” within the European Union

Like others who advocate curbing Russian tourism, he suggested that visas should remain available on humanitarian grounds — “leaving Europe’s door open to democratic activists and those persecuted by authoritarian regimes” in Russia and Belarus.

Other leaders and officials say the idea of ​​targeting ordinary Russians to punish Putin is wrong.

Some question whether banning Russian tourists will actually lead to common Russians opposing the war, not to mention the government.

Anna Arutonyan, a Russian-American journalist and writer, wrote: “The notion that forcing Russians to stay at home would somehow make them change Kremlin policy is dubious even if the Russian state were a democracy, and utterly absurd given that it is anything but.” a Opinion article for the Moscow Times.

“There is absolutely no historical evidence that closing borders makes people push for democratic change,” she said. “There is only evidence to the contrary.”

In a discussion paper circulated before the Prague meeting, France and Germany argue against a blanket ban on the grounds that experiencing life in democracies firsthand could have “transformative power” for Russians, according to German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

“Our visa policies should reflect this and continue to allow people to communicate in the European Union with Russian citizens who are not associated with the Russian government,” the newspaper said.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said on Tuesday that the EU visa debate showed an “absolute lack of reason”.

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“These are very dangerous decisions that may be directed against our citizens,” he said, “and they cannot go unanswered.”

Kate Brady in Berlin and Marie Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

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