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10th Dec 2022

Russian public's war-apathy prompts EU visa curbs

  • Ministers took the decision in Prague (Photo: EU2022_CZ)
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Russian merry-making on EU holidays this summer despite the war in Ukraine has prompted Europe to slash tourist visas in its first sanctions aimed at the Russian public.

"Since the middle of July, we've seen substantial increases in border crossings from Russia," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in Prague on Wednesday (31 August), announcing the new measures.

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"We've seen many Russians travelling for leisure and shopping as if no war was raging in Ukraine," he said.

"Member states were candid: 'We're not business as usual. It cannot be business as usual'," he added.

Some Russians might pose a "security risk," Borrell also said, after EU countries expelled hundreds of Russian spies who had been working under diplomatic cover in April and May.

But the moral and political argument was voiced by a growing number of EU states at the Prague meeting.

Ukrainian men weren't able to holiday in the EU because of martial law in the war-torn country, Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod noted, for instance.

Russia's actions must "have consequences on all fronts," he said. And the visa curbs were "a clear signal" that the war was "totally unacceptable".

"At the same time when Ukrainians are suffering, normal [Russian] tourism shouldn't continue," Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said.

The EU-wide curbs will see the numbers of new tourist visas issued "significantly reduced", Borrell promised in the Czech Republic.

Visa-application prices will also more than double to €80 and the EU Commission will look into freezing an existing stockpile of 12m valid Russian travel permits.

The sanctions are the first EU measures designed to impact the Russian general public, following economic sanctions and blacklists of Russian banks and VIPs, which were aimed at Kremlin power structures.

But the new visa restrictions fall far short of a full ban on Russian tourists, pressed for by the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, and Poland.

France, Germany, and Hungary had opposed the ban, with Paris and Berlin saying it could backfire in a competition for ordinary Russians' "hearts and minds".

But Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat told a different story in mid-August, when it counted 1,400 Russian cars parked in Helsinki airport, many of them luxury vehicles, in a glaring sign that EU holidays were in fact perks of the Russian elite.

And the visa-ban hawks threatened to take matters into their own hands if the EU's mini-sanctions didn't see Russian holidaying dwindle.

The Baltic States, Finland, and Poland — the only EU countries with a Russian border — said they'd invoke national security reasons to ban all Russians from entering their territories if need be.

"We will consider setting up temporary measures on the national level in order to address imminent public security issues related to the increased influx of Russian citizens across our borders," they said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

The new visa-curbs were merely a step "in the right direction", Finland's Haavisto said.

"People with tourist visas blew up an ammunition factory here in the Czech Republic [in 2014]. I would remind you about Salisbury [in the UK in 2018]. I could remind you about some other murders. This happened before the war. We see increasing risks," Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs also said in Prague, referring to past Russian covert attacks in Europe.

Russia's Putin

Meanwhile, opinion is divided among Belarusian and Russian émigrés on how to handle Russian visitors.

Vladimir Ashurkov, a UK-based associate of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, told this website on Tuesday it would be counterproductive to ban them, echoing French and German ideas.

But Belarusian dissident Natalia Kaliada, who works with exiled Russians in London and further afield, took another view.

Putin had crushed the opposition at home, but it was wishful thinking that he alone supported the war or that most Russians didn't know what he was really doing, Kaliada told EUobserver on Wednesday, pointing to deeper problems in Russian society.

"We hear the discourse that Putin and Russians are different things, but mass murders, torture, and rape of thousands of Ukrainians are being carried out by Russians," she said.

"When 80 percent of the Russian population support Putin, they need to stay home and enjoy his rule in Russia. It's not Putin who created the Russians, but the Russians who created Putin," Kaliada said.

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