Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Column

Give Russians more visas — not fewer

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At Helsinki airport, there is a screen showing news about the war in Ukraine — in Russian.

A lot of Russians see this, as Finland is currently issuing 1,000 visas per day to Russian citizens. This means that a thousand citizens have a chance to escape Russian state propaganda about the war — fabricated, increasingly hysterical stories about Nato "encircling" Russia, the massacre in Bucha allegedly staged by Ukrainians, or Japan planning to attack Russia — and finally discover what atrocities their country is really committing in Ukraine.

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  • The more time Russian holiday-makers spend in Santorini, Ibiza or less fancy places, the more they will be exposed to the real story

Last week, Finland announced that from 1 September, it will issue fewer visas for Russians: 100 a day, or one-tenth of what it is now.

This came after repugnant photographs appeared on Instagram, showing Russians from the Kremlin coterie holidaying on Mykonos or in Biarritz.

Russians should not be allowed to live a "normal life" as tourists in Europe, Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin said, as long as Russia's army massacres Ukrainians in their name.

The Baltic countries and Denmark are denying all tourist visas to Russians already, pushing other Schengen countries to do the same.

Their discomfort is completely understandable. Still, foreign policy cannot be conducted on the basis of instinctive revenge. We must think more strategically.

It would be unwise to stop letting Russians in. Europe's aim is to stop the war in Ukraine and for Russia to withdraw completely from Ukraine. And that can only happen if Russian citizens start resisting the war.

If we lock them up in Russia, the only narrative they will hear will be that the West is the aggressor and Russia the victim. That will not help us to achieve that goal.

We should not introduce a visa ban, which will play into Putin's hand, but do the opposite: we should bring in more Russian citizens — except, of course, criminals and figures on the sanctions list.

Let the Russians come to Europe. The more time they spend in Santorini, Ibiza or less fancy places, the more they will be exposed to the real story and to the fact that in Europe, it is possible to discuss politics and policy openly without facing up to 15 years in prison.

The more Russians sit in European restaurants and cafes, study at European universities and read newspapers and websites banned in Russia, the quicker some will realise that it is up to them to get rid of their leader and end this terrible war.

If we stop giving visas to Russians, they will continue to hear all day, unfiltered, that the imperialist West wants to wipe out Russia. They will indeed conclude that the West hates them, just like president Vladimir Putin keeps telling them. As a result, they will rally behind Putin.

This is why a visa ban, as tempting as it sounds as a retribution, is not in Europe's interest.

Let ordinary Russians shop in Europe, holiday in Europe and study in Europe on generous EU grants. This is what Europe stands for. Our openness, our democracies, our debates, however heated: this is what we are good at, this is who we are.

We should have used this as a policy tool long ago. Putin will hate it.

Putin's ploy

The Kremlin has condemned proposals for a European visa ban, using this as a rare opportunity to curry favour with Russian citizens with an argument that for once truly reflects their interests. But make no mistake, this is a ploy.

Putin does not want Russian citizens to mix freely with Europeans. He is said to consider introducing exit visa for Russians, like in Soviet times, so he can prevent them from travelling to Europe (and to reserve that right just for his friends and loyal cronies). He has also called on Russian students to leave European universities and continue their studies in Russia, where everything is supposedly better.

Are we going to help Putin doing all this? Hopefully not.

In addition, the availability of European tourist visas is essential for Russians who oppose Putin and need to flee the country for fear of being imprisoned or sent to the front in Ukraine.

For many, it is the only way to get out. It would be an extremely bad idea to take this life-saver away from them, just at a moment when the regime in Moscow is becoming more totalitarian by the day.

While Europe can be proud of the way it welcomes Ukrainian refugees, its record with Russians-on-the-run is not very good.

Lawyers have great difficulty helping them to find a legal way into Europe, even for Russians who are married with Ukrainians, who live in Ukraine and condemn the war. We should do better. It is high time we start helping them in a systemic way.

Issuing tourist, student and work visas in a targeted way is one way of doing this. Europe and Russia are different on that front, too.

Opponents to this openness point at recent pro-Putin demonstrations in Europe and argue that exposure to the European way of life and to independent sources of information has no impact whatsoever. That is true.

But there are also many Russians who are not like this. Many do not agree with the war. And with the Russian economy starting to tank as a result of EU sanctions and Kremlin mismanagement, the number of Russians questioning the regime will almost certainly increase. Not reaching out to them at this critical moment would be a colossal mistake.

Others fear that Russia's secret agents will abuse European tourist or student visas for covert operations, as they have done many times in the past.

Of course they will. But the fact that tourist visas exist does not mean that they have to be issued automatically to everyone. And there is no doubt that without these visas, those agents would come too, using false passports and bogus names. After all, trickery, deceit and worse are part of their tool box.

A visa ban would stop ordinary Russians to come here, not the secret agents.

When European ministers of foreign affairs discuss a visa ban for Russian tourists next week, they should oppose it.

The other Finnish idea however, the screens, deserves to be introduced in all EU member states where Russians are. It would be great to see those screens providing news about Putin's war Ukraine, in Russian, appearing all over Europe.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a correspondent and columnist for NRC Handelsblad, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in De Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Finland restricts Russian tourist visas

Russian citizens were circumventing the European airspace ban by driving to Helsinki airport, which was being used as a hub to fly to other tourist destinations. Finland is now restricting those border crossings.

Germany rejects visa ban for Russian tourists

German chancellor Olaf Scholz said a total ban on tourist visas will not be supported by Berlin — adding that many refugees do not agree with the Russian regime.

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