‘The West doesn’t want Russians partying in the streets of Europe’: Calls grow for visa ban | Russia

Aacross Europe, beaches and towns are filled with tourists. Among them, perhaps in a low voice, is a sprinkling of Russians. But if some politicians get their way, this may be the last summer Russian tourists can spend on a Mediterranean beach.

Countries like Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and the Czech Republic have asked the EU to limit or block short-term Schengen visas for Russians, in protest against the invasion of Ukraine by their country.

After six months of war, the proposal echoes the widespread frustration of a Russian public that seems unable or unwilling to mount meaningful resistance to the war waged in its name. The situation has been aggravated by high-profile incidents, including a Russian woman harassing two Ukrainian refugees in Europe.

“Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians”, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wrote on Twitter last week. “Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right.”

But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz rejected the appeal, saying a blanket visa ban for Russians was “hard to imagine”. EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the measure at an informal meeting this month, although universal approval from the bloc’s 27 members would be required.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has called for a ban on tourist visas for Russians. Photography: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

The proposal has also sparked a heated debate among Russians – including vocal opponents of the war, often living in exile in Europe – about how a visa ban could mark a step towards isolation reminiscent of the Soviet period.

“I don’t see any good in banning Russians from Europe because they need to see a free world,” said Ilya Krasilshchik, a Russian online publisher who has been threatened with legal action in Russia for opposing in the war and who is currently in Europe.

While he thought a visa ban was unlikely to pass, he said problems with opening bank accounts in Europe had made it difficult for dissidents to operate in exile. Instead, he would like increased surveillance to weed out Russians with pro-war views. “And as for the idea that if the Russians cannot leave the country, they will rise up and overthrow the regime, that is a total lie… The experience of the Soviet Union shows that closing the borders does not not lead to the overthrow of the regime. I understand the anger of the moment, but I think that in the long term, it is dangerous.”

Many Russians approached by the Observer agreed that mainstream tourism had become a clear flashpoint as the country engaged in a brutal war against its neighbour.

“I believe that if you leave Russia, you must be actively against the war,” said Ira Lobanovskaya, who launched a Russian Federation relocation guide chat on Telegram advise people to leave the country. “You can’t be outside politics anymore: it’s barbaric in the current climate. We emphasize this when we help people move… I understand that the West doesn’t want Russians partying in the streets of Europe.

But keeping the Russians in Russia would be counterproductive, she said. About half of the more than 40,000 people her organization has counseled want to speak out or take part in anti-government marches, she added. “They need to unite overseas, form anti-war alliances and speak out. You cannot simply overthrow a nuclear power like Russia from within. It’s just unrealistic. »

However, Ilya Ponomarev, a former Duma deputy who has lived in exile in Ukraine since 2016, favors a ban. He said Russians able to do so should stay in Russia to fight the regime, that it was not productive for people to just go to jail, “leaving the country should be the last resort”.

“You cannot abstain from this war,” he said in an interview in Ukraine. “If you want to abstain, don’t complain about being expelled from Europe.” He said he believed 98% of people leaving the country were not in danger but left “just because it’s uncomfortable for them”. [in Russia]”.

He continued: “I completely agree with the Estonian leader when she said that being in Europe is not a human right; it is a privilege. If you want that privilege, do something in Russia first, earn that privilege, make a bold move, then leave. And we shouldn’t stop those kinds of people from leaving.

Tourists have lunch near the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Tallinn.  Estonia is among the countries calling for their ban.
Tourists have lunch near the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Tallinn. Estonia is among the countries calling for their ban. Photograph: Kirk Fisher/Alamy

In an online address over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his call to limit Schengen visas for Russians, saying there “should be guarantees that Russian murderers and accomplices in state terrorism do not use Schengen visas”.

But he also called for support from Russians “who do indeed need help”. “There are well-known legal mechanisms, through refugee status, asylum applications and other ways to receive help.”

Russian activists say tourist visas are an important tool for many people trying to leave Russia, especially when fleeing land borders, because getting out of the country is too expensive or too dangerous.

“This is a safety mechanism for thousands of Russians who are already suffering or may in the future face repressions,” said Anton Barbashin of the Riddle Russia news site, currently in Europe. “A visa ban will limit the opportunities for critics of the regime to seek safety when they need it.”

Countries like Latvia, Estonia and Finland have seen an influx of Russian tourists and emigrants since the start of the war, and have begun to independently tighten immigration rules and enforce limited visa bans. Other informal proposals to limit Russian tourism during the war include requiring Russians to sign a declaration condemning the invasion when entering Europe. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul suggests that Russian visitors should be required to pay a tax of around €100 for the reconstruction of Ukraine.

“For countries reluctant to ban all Russians from visiting their country, the idea of ​​charging extra for the visa which would then go to Ukrainian reconstruction offers an alternative response,” he said. “Doing nothing – just maintaining the status quo – shouldn’t be an option.”

He argued that this would avoid blanket restrictions that could punish Russians who opposed the war and help trigger a brain drain in Russia.

“As for the dilemma of the Russians accused of financing the reconstruction of the Ukrainian government, well it is their choice, no one is forcing them to travel to democratic Europe! They can vacation in the European country of Belarus instead.

Wealthy Russians would likely find a way around any ban, said the son of a Russian businessman, who holds a British passport. He was in Saint-Tropez this summer and there were “as many Russians as usual”.

“The elite will always find a way to get to Europe,” he said. “A lot of my generation went to school here. We have lived in the west long enough to receive residence permits or a second passport. Those who don’t talk about getting Turkish papers if Europe goes all the way. There will always be loopholes for those who have money.

Mary I. Bruner