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Ban Russian tourists? E.U. is divided on visa restrictions.

Luxury cars with Russian license plates in the premium parking area of the Helsinki airport this month. (Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP/Getty Images)

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

Those questions will be part of a debate among foreign ministers of the European Union’s member states gathered this week for an informal meeting in Prague. And while E.U. countries were united in banning Russian flights from their airspace and placing more than 1,200 individuals on their sanctions list, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, a blanket ban on Russian tourists is proving far more divisive.

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

Calls grow to ban E.U. visas for Russians, but not all Ukrainians agree

Zelensky has support from E.U. countries that share a border with Russia — the Baltic states and Finland — as well as from Poland and the Czech Republic.

A travel ban is “another way of getting our message through to the Russian people that Kremlin must stop its genocidal war against Ukrainian people,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in an email response to a Post query. “People change their mind-set once their own privileges are cut and well-being affected.”

But other E.U. members, notably Germany and France, strongly oppose the idea. They say it would be unfair and unwise to punish all Russians for what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called “Putin’s war.” Visa restrictions might shrink the dwindling number of escape routes for critics, they argue, and could confine people to the Kremlin’s echo chamber, playing to claims about Western persecution.

“You risk making the E.U. the bad guy in the eyes of Russian citizens who may not be supportive of the regime, or supportive of the war,” said one E.U. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations ahead of the Prague meeting.

Wednesday’s session is unlikely to resolve who should be allowed to visit and under what terms. A second E.U. diplomat familiar with the debate said it would be an informal start of a “discussion,” not the final word on what, if anything, comes next.

One potential compromise is the full suspension of a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia, which would make it more difficult and expensive for Russian citizens to get tourist visas, according to diplomats.

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

Much of the discussion is centered on short-stay visas that allow travel for up to 90 days throughout the 26-country Schengen zone. More than 4 million of those visas were issued in Russia in 2019, before the pandemic, according to E.U. figures.

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

Since Russia’s invasion, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have stopped issuing most short-stay visas to Russian citizens. Estonia has additionally moved to invalidate previously issued short-stay visas, while Latvia is requiring Russian travelers entering with existing visas to sign statements opposing the war with Ukraine.

Finland, meanwhile, has announced it will cut the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent starting Thursday.

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

Europeans seethed this summer at news reports of Russian-plated luxury vehicles at Helsinki’s airport. With a widespread ban on Russian flights in effect, Russians wanting to vacation in Europe have had to drive to neighboring countries and fly on from there.

But Finland and the Baltic states say there is only so much they can do on their own to limit Russian tourism and avoid being abused as a transit route. Officials complain that many Russian tourists are showing up with short-stay visas issued by other Schengen countries.

“We must say a clear ‘no’ to shameless Russian free riders at the border,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote in an opinion piece for Politico that called for “visa solidarity” within the E.U.

Like others who advocate for curbing Russian tourism, he suggested that visas should still be available on humanitarian grounds — “leaving Europe’s door open to democratic activists and those persecuted by the authoritarian regimes” in Russia and Belarus.

Other leaders and officials say the idea of targeting everyday Russians to punish Putin is ill-conceived.

Some question whether banning Russian tourists will, in fact, push ordinary Russians to oppose the war, let alone the government.

“The idea that forcing Russians to stay home would somehow make them change Kremlin policy is questionable even if the Russian state were a democracy, and is outright ludicrous considering it is anything but,” Anna Arutunyan, a Russian American journalist and author, wrote in an opinion piece for the Moscow Times.

“There is no historical evidence whatsoever that closed borders makes people push for democratic change,” she continued. “There is only evidence of the opposite.”

In a discussion paper circulated ahead of the Prague meeting, France and Germany argue against a blanket ban on grounds that experiencing life in democratic systems firsthand could have “transformative power” for Russians, according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

“Our visa policies should reflect that and continue to allow for people to people contacts in the E.U. with Russian nationals not linked to the Russian government,” the paper stated.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, said Tuesday that the E.U. visa debate showed “an absolute lack of reason.”

“These are very serious decisions that may be directed against our citizens,” he said, and “cannot go unanswered.”

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

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