EU foreign ministers are to discuss this week an appeal led by Ukraine to ban Russian tourists from visiting Europe.
The idea, to be studied in a two-day meeting starting Tuesday in Prague, has divided EU nations, with some wholeheartedly agreeing with it while others resist, fearing it would shut the door on dissident Russians fleeing their homeland.
Some EU countries neighbouring Russia have already moved to bar or limit visas to Russians, but no EU-wide ban is as yet in place.
Ukraine: Russians stay home
In February, the European Union restricted visas in certain categories for Russians linked to the Kremlin, including for officials, diplomatic passport holders and company bosses. But tourist visas were still permitted.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is now demanding the West shut its borders to all Russians, including tourists, saying they should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has said: “Russians overwhelmingly support the war, cheer missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and (the) murder of Ukrainians. Let Russian tourists enjoy Russia then.”
A furious Kremlin has reacted by calling Kyiv’s appeal “irrational” and pledging retaliation.
Finland steps up
Finland, which has Europe’s longest border with Russia, will from Thursday slash the number of Russian tourist visa applications it handles to just 10 percent of the usual 1,000 received per day. A flat-out ban based on an applicant’s nationality is impossible under Finnish law.
That measure will have an impact. Because of EU sanctions closing European airspace to flights from Russia, Russians had massively turned to land travel through Finland to reach other European countries.
EU countries Latvia, Lithuania and Poland stopped issuing new tourist visas to Russians when the Kremlin’s forces invaded Ukraine in late February.
EU’s Schengen visa
Russian leisure travellers use Schengen visas normally valid across 26 EU and associated countries, including Switzerland and Norway.
The visas typically allow stays of up to 90 days in a 180-day rolling period.
Those 26 countries received around three million Schengen visa applications last year. Russians made up the biggest group, accounting for 536,000 of them.
Estonia wants EU rules to be changed to allow it to stop Russians with already issued Schengen visas, regardless of which EU country issued them.
The Czech Republic — which holds the rotating EU presidency — argues “business as usual for Russian tourists in time of aggression is inappropriate”.
EU sanctions require unanimity among all 27 member states. One country — Hungary — maintains friendly ties with Moscow and could veto a bloc-wide visa ban.
On top of that, several EU countries, among them France, Germany and Portugal, insist that Russian journalists and other civilians fearing persecution should continue to be allowed entry.
And EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who will chair the EU ministers’ meeting in Prague, said he believed a prohibition on all Russians from entering Europe “is not a good idea”.
The European Commission insists on the need for humanitarian access for dissident Russians, and says visa applications should be assessed individually and not under a blanket rule.
Lithuania has said that, if no EU-wide ban is agreed, it could seek a “regional solution” banning tourists, possibly including Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Poland.
‘Fuel’ for Kremlin propaganda
An expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, Marie Dumoulin, said the appeal to ban Russians from Europe contains “a dangerous error of analysis”.
“Less than 30 percent of Russians have a passport, and their top travel destinations are Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates,” she said.
“A ban would have the exact opposite effect of what is being sought. By stigmatising Russians, it would fuel the Kremlin propaganda that, for years and especially since the offensive in Ukraine, has been decrying a supposed ‘Russophobia’ by Westerners.”
The EU, she said, should retain links with Russian civil society and not “lock it away in a pen totally controlled by the regime”.