Ban Russian tourists? The EU is divided on visa restrictions for regular Russians.

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Brussels – With fighting raging in eastern Ukraine and Europe, should the Russians be allowed to enjoy the end of summer in southern France, a war-induced recession? Buy luxury goods in Italy? Visit family in Finland?

Those questions will be part of a discussion among EU foreign ministers who will gather for an informal meeting in Prague this week. And when the EU countries came together Ban on Russian flights From their airspace and space More than 1,200 people Among their list of sanctions, the blanket ban on Russian tourists has proven to be the most divisive.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing for one. “Let them live in their own world until they change their philosophy,” he said Interview with the Washington Post This month. “This is the only way to influence Putin.”

Calls to ban EU visas for Russians are growing, but not all Ukrainians agree

He has the support of EU countries that share a border with Russia – the Baltics and Finland – and Poland and the Czech Republic.

The travel ban is “another way to take our message to the Russian people that the Kremlin must stop its genocidal war against the Ukrainian people,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in an email. “People change their mindsets when their own privileges are cut and well-being is affected.”

But other EU members, notably Germany and France, strongly oppose the idea. They say it is unfair and unwise to punish all Russians for what they are German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made the call “Putin’s War.” Visa restrictions could reduce the number of escape routes for critics, they argue, and lock more people into the Kremlin’s echo chamber, playing off claims of Western persecution.

“There is a risk of making the EU the bad guy in the eyes of Russian citizens who are neither pro-regime nor pro-war,” an EU diplomat said. – until the Prague meeting.

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Wednesday’s session is unlikely to resolve who should be allowed to visit under what terms. A second EU diplomat familiar with the discussion said it would be the informal start of a “discussion”.

A possibility The compromise was a complete suspension of the 2007 Visa Facilitation Agreement with Russia, which made it more difficult and expensive for Russian citizens to obtain tourist visas. According to diplomats.

Although Zelensky suggested in his Post interview that travel restrictions apply to all Russians, including foreigners, there appears to be little support for such a move.

Much of the current debate centers on short-term visas that allow travel of up to 90 days across the 26-country Schengen zone. More than 4 million of those visas were issued before the pandemic in Russia in 2019. European Union statistics.

Member states are debating how to keep their doors open to human rights campaigners and protesters, and how to create exemptions for groups such as family members, students and scientists.

Since the invasion of Russia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all stopped issuing short-term visas to Russian citizens. Estonia was additionally invalidated Previously issued short term visasRussian travelers entering Latvia with an existing visa must sign statements opposing the war.

Meanwhile, Finland has announced that it will reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent from September 1.

“It’s not right that Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists, while Russia is waging a war of aggression, brutal aggression in Europe. It’s not right,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. told Finland’s public broadcaster.

Europeans were reeling this summer from news reports Russian-plated luxury vehicles at Helsinki Airport. With a widespread ban on Russian flights in place, Russians wishing to vacation in Europe had to fly to neighboring countries.

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But Finland and the Baltic states say they can do more on their own to limit Russian tourism and avoid being abused as a transit route. Officials complain that many Russian tourists show short-term visas issued by other Schengen countries.

“We must say a clear ‘no’ to shameless Russian freedom riders at the border,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote. In an opinion piece on politics It called for “visa harmonization” within the EU

Like others advocating curbs on Russian tourism, he suggested the visas should be on a more humanitarian basis — “leaving Europe’s door open to democracy activists and those persecuted by the authoritarian regimes of Moscow and Minsk.”

Other leaders and officials say the idea of ​​targeting everyday Russians to punish Putin is misguided.

Some question whether banning tourism will actually push ordinary Russians to oppose the war, let alone the government.

“The idea that forcing Russians to stay at home will somehow change Kremlin policy is questionable, even if the Russian government is democratic, and completely ludicrous,” wrote Anna Arudunyan, a Russian-American journalist and author. A Opinion section of the Moscow Times.

“There is no historical evidence that closed borders motivate people to democratic change,” he continued. “There is only evidence to the contrary.”

In a discussion paper published ahead of this week’s meeting, France and Germany argue against a blanket ban because experiencing life in democratic systems first-hand is a “transformational force” for Russians, according to German press agency DPA.

“Our visa policies should reflect that and continue to allow public contacts in the EU with Russian nationals who are not affiliated with the Russian government,” the paper said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the EU visa debate “shows absolute reason”.

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“These are extremely serious decisions directed against our citizens,” he said, “and cannot go unanswered.”

Kate Brady in Berlin and Marie Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

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