Europe may cringe at the sight of Russian tourists shopping while the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine grinds on, but a total visa ban is not the answer
The unrestricted presence of Russian tourists in Europe, months on from the invasion of Ukraine, has been the subject of a heated debate - one that has, at times, verged on a free-for-all.
Most recently, European Union (EU) foreign ministers agreed at the end of August to suspend a long-standing visa agreement with Russia that had simplified (and reduced the cost of) the application process.
The agreement had, in fact, already been suspended for businesspeople and government officials in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February - but ordinary Russians had remained able to travel to Europe to holiday or shop.
Now that is to change. The complete suspension of the visa agreement means ordinary Russians will have to pay roughly €50 more for each Schengen tourist visa application, and face longer processing times and more paperwork. Their applications are also more likely to be rejected and they are less likely to receive multiple-entry visas.
It seems unlikely to end the disagreement.
For starters, the move is not considered to be enough by those who argue Russian citizens should be made to feel their complacency or complicity in Vladimir Putin's crimes in Ukraine. By this logic, it is simply unacceptable that Russians continue to enjoy holidays and shopping tours in Europe while civilians are being killed in Ukraine every day.
Furthermore, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland argue that limiting Russians' access to their countries is a question of national security. After pandemic-related travel restrictions were lifted in early summer, there was a notable uptick in land border crossings to these states from Russia because direct air connections between Russia and the Schengen zone remain suspended due to the war.
The actual question of how Russian tourists can travel to and from the EU in the first place is increasingly unclear. In addition to the Baltic states, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands have closed their consulates in Russia. Finland recently announced that it would only offer 500 visa applications a day, far fewer than in pre-pandemic times, and prioritise non-tourist travel from Russia. Poland and the Czech Republic are pursuing similar restrictions.
In response to this lack of coordination, Brussels now expects a common proposal from eastern European states on tighter visa processing and border controls. There are many options. Estonia recently invalidated some 50,000 visas issued to Russian citizens. There are reports from Finland that a growing number of Russians are not being allowed to travel on to other European destinations and that if they do manage to do so, when returning home, Finnish border guards confiscate their euros in order to enforce sanctions.
Other European states are taking a different stance. Cyprus, Bulgaria and Greece are reluctant to give up on the economic benefits of Russian tourism. Russians remain free to travel to Turkey or other non-EU countries in the neighbourhood. But in any case, only 30% or so of Russian citizens have a foreign passport and an EU-wide ban on tourist visas may not have a significant political impact. Wealthy Russians often have long-term residence permits or so-called "golden passports" from European countries, which is why leading members of the Russian opposition argue that the EU needs to massively expand individual sanctions and travel bans on the ruling elite.
No blanket restrictions
The critical argument against blanket visa restrictions, however, is that Europe needs to sustain links with Russian civil society.
Humanitarian visas, asylum applications or even work visas are not enough of an alternative to short-term tourist visas, which are obtained faster, more easily and at comparatively low personal risk for dissidents. Some dissidents change their status once they arrive in the EU on a tourist visa, but others continue to travel back and forth, maintaining close personal contacts in Russia for as long as possible. A ban on short-term Schengen visas would only strengthen the Russian regime, rendering Russian society even more helpless in the face of relentless repression and propaganda.
Hardliners push back against this argument. They say that decades of economic, scientific and societal contact between Russia and the EU have rather led to complacency and western Europeans, notably Germans, should listen to post-Soviet countries, with all their experience of Russian imperialism.
Neither side can claim to be indisputably right and, for the foreseeable future, there is no prospect of a return to normality in EU-Russia relations. Consequently, at this point of time, it is imperative to sustain political consensus within the EU,, which is in the vital interest of Ukraine.
This means we need to stop putting forward maximalist positions and allow for reasonable disagreements. Clearly, not all Russians can be held responsible for Putin's wars and simply banning them from the EU would be unwise as well as illegal. Visa applications can be made more challenging, as has already been agreed, but they should be processed on an individual basis.
In the EU, there is no legal basis to refuse, let alone revoke, all visas to citizens of a particular nationality. The right to family life also needs to be respected, considering millions of Russians have relatives in Europe.
Last but not least, there must be legal and accessible channels for Russians who want to turn their back on the current regime. Short-term visas have previously been used for this purpose and restrictions on them should be compensated as far as possible. Political promises on more humanitarian and work visas urgently need to be put into practice. It should also be easier to invite Russians who are not part of the ruling elite for political or scientific meetings in Europe.
Coordinated restrictions on Schengen visas and border crossings from Russia are better than the current confusion and freewheeling political rhetoric. Russian dissidents also need more reliable support. European countries should keep these shared principles in mind while they pursue their own priorities.
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