Ban Russian tourists? The EU is divided on visa restrictions for regular Russians.

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BRUSSELS – As fighting rages in eastern Ukraine and Europe braces for a war-induced recession, should Russians be allowed to enjoy late summer in southern Ukraine? France ? Buying luxury goods in Italy? Visiting family in Finland?

These questions will form part of a debate this week between European Union foreign ministers gathered for an informal meeting in Prague. And while EU countries were united in banning Russian flights from their airspace and placing more than 1,200 people on their sanctions list, a blanket ban on Russian tourists proves far more divisive.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing for it. “Let them live in their own world until they change their philosophy, he said in an interview with The Washington Post this month. “It’s the only way to influence Putin.”

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

It enjoys support from EU countries that share a border with Russia – the Baltics and Finland – as well as Poland and the Czech Republic.

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

But other EU members, notably Germany, strongly oppose it. They say it would be unfair and reckless to punish all Russians for this German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called “Putin’s War. Visa restrictions could reduce the dwindling number of escape routes for critics, they argue, and could lock more people into the Kremlin’s echo chamber, playing on claims of Western persecution.

“You risk making the EU the bad guy in the eyes of Russian citizens who may not support the regime or the war,” said an EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. discuss private conversations in the lead. – until the Prague meeting.

Wednesday’s session is unlikely to determine who should be allowed to visit and under what conditions. A second EU diplomat familiar with the debate said it would be an informal start to a “discussion” and not the final say on what, if anything, comes next.

A likely compromise will be the total suspension of a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia, making it more difficult and more expensive for Russian citizens to obtain tourist visas, according to diplomats.

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

Much of the current discussion centers on short-stay visas that allow travel for up to 90 days within the “Schengen area” of 26 countries. More than 4 million of these visas were issued in Russia in 2019, before the pandemic, according to EU figures.

Member states are debating how to keep their doors open to human rights activists and dissidents, as well as how to create exemptions for close family members and, in some cases, students, have said diplomats.

Since the Russian invasion, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all stopped issuing short-stay visas to Russian citizens. Estonia has also decided to invalidate previously issued short-stay visaswhile Latvia requires Russian travelers entering on existing visas to sign declarations opposing the war.

Finland, meanwhile, has announced that it will reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90% from September 1.

“It is not fair that at the same time that Russia is waging an aggressive and brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can lead a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists. This is not right,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. told the Finnish public broadcaster.

This summer, Europeans have been enthusiastic about reports on Russian Plated Luxury Vehicles at Helsinki Airport. With a widespread ban on Russian flights in effect, Russians wishing to vacation in Europe have had to travel to neighboring countries and fly from there.

But Finland and the Baltics say they can do little on their own to limit Russian tourism and avoid being abused as a transit route. Authorities complain that many Russian tourists arrive with short-stay visas issued by other Schengen countries.

“We must say a clear ‘no’ to shameless Russian gate-crashers at the border,” wrote Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. in an opinion piece for Politico which called for “visa solidarity” within the EU

As others advocate curbing Russian tourism, he suggested visas should still be available for humanitarian reasons – “leaving the door to Europe open to democratic activists and those persecuted by authoritarian regimes in Moscow. and Minsk”.

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

Some wonder if the tourism ban will actually cause ordinary Russians to oppose the war, let alone the government.

“The idea that forcing Russians to stay at home would somehow make them change Kremlin policy is questionable even if the Russian state were a democracy, and is downright ludicrous given that it is anything but that,” Anna Arutunyan, a Russian-American journalist and author, wrote in a opinion piece for the Moscow Times.

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

About Jonathan J. Kramer

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