Ban Russian tourists? EU divided over 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 between the foreign ministers of the Member States of the European Union gathered this week for an informal meeting in Prague. And while EU countries were united in ban russian flights of their airspace and placing more than 1,200 people on their sanctions list, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, 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 a 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

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

A travel ban is “another way to send our message 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 response to a query from the Post. “People change their minds once their own privileges are cut and their well-being is affected.”

But other EU members, notably Germany and France, 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 confine people to the Kremlin 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 before 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”, not the final say on what, if anything, comes next.

A potential compromise is the total suspension of a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia, which would make 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 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 whether and how to create exemptions for groups such as family members, students and scientists.

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

Finland, meanwhile, announced that it would reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90% from Thursday.

“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.

Europeans boiled over this summer following 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 Baltic states 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

Like others who 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 Russia and in Belarus.

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

Some wonder if banning Russian tourists will in fact 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,” wrote Anna Arutunyan, a Russian-American journalist and author. 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.”

In a working document released ahead of the Prague meeting, France and Germany oppose a blanket ban on the grounds that direct experience of life in democratic systems could have “transformative power” for Russians, according to the German press agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

“Our visa policies should reflect this and continue to allow person-to-person contact in the EU with Russian nationals unrelated to 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”.

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

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

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