European Union foreign ministers recently agreed to make it more difficult for Russian citizens going to the block for a vacation in retaliation for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.
But five EU member states say Russians should not be allowed to visit Europe at all, and those states are still pushing for a full ban. This is a question that continues to divide European leaders.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made clear his opposition to a total travel ban at a press conference in Oslo, Norway last month. Yes, we must hit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s henchmen hard, he said, but not ordinary Russian citizens.
“This is not the Russian people’s war,” he said. “It’s Putin’s war. We need to be very clear about this.
Meanwhile, at the same press conference, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin stressed her country’s support for a full ban.
“I think it’s not fair that Russian citizens can travel, enter Europe, be tourists, see sights, while Russia is killing people in Ukraine. This is wrong,” she said.
The other four EU member states that share this view – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – also have a land border with Russia and a long troubled history of intimidation, occupation and of oppression by their dominant neighbour. While they all admit that some Russians are fed up with war, they see the majority of Russians as accomplices.
“Their passivity legitimizes war and atrocities,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Marketplace in a phone call from his country’s capital, Tallinn. “The money from their taxes is used to finance the bombing of schools, hospitals, kindergartens on Ukrainian soil. Citizens of the aggressor state – with a few exceptions, such as people genuinely fleeing Putin’s regime – are not welcome on European soil.
But they are still officially welcome in many EU countries. And since most member states – including the five calling for a total travel ban – belong to the Schengen area with no border controls between them, Russians can arrive in Estonia, for example, whether Estonians like it or not.
Nick Redman, director of analytics at Oxford Analytica, an independent consultancy, explains:
“If you are Russian, live in St. Petersburg, want to visit France on vacation, you can get a visa from the French consulate there, drive to Tallinn, then fly and land in France. ,” he said. “I can understand why Estonians feel frustrated. They banned the Russians but then see them appear at their border with a visa issued by another European country which allows them passage.
In fact, the number of Russian tourists visiting major holiday destinations in Europe plummeted at the start of the pandemic and continued to decline as war raged in Ukraine. The number of Russian applications for EU travel visas has fallen by almost 90% over the past two and a half years.
Tom Jenkins, director of the European Tourism Association and leading expert on the European holiday industry, describes Russia as an “ex-market” at present. But it’s not one that European tour operators would gladly cancel.
“Before the pandemic, visitors from Russia were extremely important to us,” he said. “A large population with a land border with Europe. They were important and wealthy visitors to the cultural capitals of the Continent and also to certain ski areas, such as Courchevel.
In 2019, no more visas from the Schengen area were granted in Russia than in any other countryand in 2018, Russians were the seventh biggest spenders on tourism in the world, spending approximately $35 billion in international travel.
Greece took advantage of this spending spree. Before the pandemic, more than half a million Russians flocked there every year. Earlier this year, as the threat of COVID-19 receded and before Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, Greeks expected 600,000 Russians to arrive throughout this summer and spend more than $700 million, or just over 2% of Greece’s total. tourist receipts.
“Unfortunately, we lost all these cases because of the war,” said Lysandros Tsilides, director of the Hellenic Association of Tourism and Travel Agencies in Athens.
After the EU banned flights from Russia, there was a flood of cancellations and the expected level of bookings did not materialize. But although a total visa ban would not make much difference commercially in the short term, Tsilides vehemently opposes such a measure.
“Tourism promotes peace. Visitors are people. They have the right to move, talk and think freely and easily in a friendly way,” Tsilides said. “We want to have a relationship with people all over the world. You have to be very open. »
As an independent analyst, Oxford Analytica’s Redman remains neutral on whether a total visa ban should be imposed, but admits keeping Europe’s door open to ordinary Russians could help counter propaganda of the Kremlin.
“At least it allows them to hear a Western perspective on what’s happening in Ukraine and to challenge their government’s narrative on the war,” Redman said.
Jenkins of the European Tourism Association goes further and argues that a visa ban could even bolster the Kremlin’s rhetoric.
“By turning around and saying, ‘The Russians are the enemy’, we are behaving exactly as Putin wants us to behave. We say: “This is a war between the West and Russia”. This is exactly the program he offers.
None of this appeals to supporters of a visa ban.
Sebastian Stodolak, vice president of the Warsaw Enterprise Institute, a Polish think tank, said a majority of Russians have at least acquiesced in the invasion and that it is morally repugnant to allow them to hover around “our beautiful Europe”. He doesn’t believe that exposure to free Western corporations and media would open Russian eyes or erode support for Putin.
“The Russians have traveled the world over the past eight years since the annexation of Crimea and have they come to their senses? No, of course not,” he said.
The issue of a total visa ban will be discussed again at a major EU summit next month. Poland, Finland and the Baltic states say they will continue to push for a ban, but Germany and tourism economies and Putin-sympathetic Hungary say they will continue to oppose it – another crack, albeit small, in the EU’s fragile united front on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
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