On Aug. 31, foreign affairs ministers from various European Union (EU) countries had an informal meeting in Prague to discuss one of the most contentious proposals put forward by Ukraine since Russia launched all-out war on the country: an EU-wide visa ban on Russian citizens.

Since the outset, the initiative, advocated by President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian and European top officials, has caused controversy in the EU, effectively dividing it into two camps. Firstly, there are those countries supporting the ban, including the Baltic States, Finland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands; and those openly or silently against it, including Germany, France, Belgium and southern European states, many of which are in desperate need of Russian tourists to make up for the 2020-2021 pandemic losses.

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Ukraine and its supporters used an array of arguments to convince the EU to introduce a ban across the bloc – from the inappropriateness of letting Russians enjoy the Mediterranean beachfront while their country wages a brutal war on Ukraine, to pointing out that Russian spies use tourist visas for traveling to the EU. A case in point related to two detained and deported Russian journalists who had traveled to Estonia to report on anti-Russian sentiment in the country and its plans to remove the T-32 tank.

Those against the ban proved to be unwavering, resulting in the EU failing to adopt a blanket initiative. Instead, it opted to suspend the 2007 deal that eased the issuance of Schengen visas to Russian nationals – a compromise that was received well by most EU member states.

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“We don’t want to cut ourselves from those Russians who oppose the war or the Russian civil society,” explained EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, who also opposes the full-fledged ban.

While Russia has avoided being severely humiliated by the EU, this does not mean that it has won this battle. Nor is it acting as if it is satisfied.

Both the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and other Ministry representatives resorted to threats relating to radiation at a time when the nuclear watchdogs are visiting the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant; and promises of “providing the EU with a symmetrical, asymmetrical, or other response.”

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Difficulties getting a Schengen visa

Before the EU introduced the EU visa waiver for Ukrainians in 2017, Russian nationals had enjoyed much more favorable treatment among EU member states’ embassies. The rejection rate had been considerably lower for the average Russian than for the average Ukrainian. All this was in part due to the 2007 deal that eased the issuance of Schengen visas to Russian nationals.

From Feb. 24 the situation changed, according to Russia’s travel sites. In June, some stated that despite more than 10 European countries regularly issuing Schengen visas to Russian nationals, the process tends to be complicated by long queues and nation-specific visa requirements.

With the suspension approved, and red tape requirements growing, the already tricky process will inevitably become more complicated than it is right now. Besides, the standard fee for the short-term visa is expected to increase from 35 to 80 euros.

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Furthermore, as a result of the EU closing its airspace to Russian flights in the early days of the invasion, Russian travel practices have changed significantly. For those who cannot afford pricey layover flights via (for example) Turkey, neighboring Baltic states Finland and Norway, as well as Poland (in Kaliningrad’s case) are among the only options to enter the Schengen zone fast.

The catch is that these EU member states are already taking concrete action to limit Russian tourism, with Brussels approving of such actions as long as they are in line with the Schengen Borders Code. Among them is Estonia, which banned Russian nationals from visiting the country.

In a comment for the Kyiv Post on Aug. 31, the Estonian Embassy in Ukraine said that while Estonia is obliged to let Russian citizens into the country who have current Schengen visas issued by other EU countries, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also delivered its proposals to the European Commission regarding the eighth package of sanctions.

“These proposals include more restrictions for Russian citizens who would like to travel to the EU. Estonia considers it unacceptable to allow Russians to travel to the EU while Russia commits genocide and multiple war crimes in Ukraine,” the response reads.

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Other countries who support the visa ban, including Poland and Finland, are likewise developing their own solutions, with Helsinki pledging to slash the number of visas issued by 90 percent from September.

Meanwhile, Latvia, which stopped issuing its visas on Aug.5, is demanding that Russian nationals entering the country sign a declaration condemning the Kremlin’s policy.

Combined, these measures will inadvertently complicate the average Russian tourist’s life as it is not uncommon for Russian tourists to go “visa shopping” – the practice of opting for an embassy that is believed to apply less stringent checks compared to others. As a rule, neighboring countries fall into this category.

Russia has shot itself in the foot

By initiating a diplomatic war with the EU and expelling diplomats from the so-called “unfriendly countries”, which encompass most of the Union, Russia effectively crippled the ability of those Consulates to review visa applications submitted by Russian nationals. This will only serve to complicate the process of visa issuance to those wanting to travel out of Russia.

While Kyiv is disappointed with the EU’s interim decision not to implement an EU-wide visa ban – Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba wanted a political declaration that rightfully sent a clear message to the Russian people – future prospects for Russian tourism to the EU do not look especially optimistic.

The increase in red tape, the fact that the European Commission is gearing up for a large-scale review of the millions of Schengen visas issued to Russia, and the determination of many states to proceed with national measures in no way suggest that Russian tourism to the EU will enjoy anything close to pre-pandemic privileges in the years to come.

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In other words, the Russians will feel the consequence of their vocal support – or silent opposition – to the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

 

 

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