EU looks to Russian tourist visa ban as means to help end Ukraine war
Discussion of complete ban on Schengen visas to Russian citizens on EU agenda
Active discussions are continuing among several European Union member states on the need to ban tourist visas for Russian citizens amid the Ukraine war.
Through this ban, the EU hopes to increase pressure on Moscow and bring an end to its "special military operation" in Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24.
A draft decision on the ban was put forth for consideration as part of the seventh package of sanctions adopted by the European Council last month.
On Feb. 26, the EU suspended the facilitated visa regime with Russia, suggesting a simplified procedure for processing documents for officials and entrepreneurs.
The European Commission meanwhile ruled out a full ban on Schengen tourist visas for Russians, as it went against EU norms.
A number of European countries including the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Denmark have limited or stopped processing certain types of entry documents for Russians following the start of the war in Ukraine.
Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic called for a ban on issuing visas to tourists from Russia at the EU level.
Schengen refers to the EU passport-free zone that covers most European countries. The largest free travel area in the world includes the 26 countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement, which allows citizens of member countries to travel within the zone freely, without passing through passport and border control.
A Schengen visa is a short-stay visa that allows a person to travel to any members of the Schengen Area, with stays up to 90 days for tourism or business purposes.
Russia's Schengen visa past
According to the European Commission, Russia remains the top source country for Schengen visa applications.
The peak was observed in 2013, when over 6.89 million Russians received such visas, accounting for 39% of the 17.25 million visas issued that year.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Russians submitted more than 4.13 million applications to the consulates of countries that are parties to the Schengen Agreement, accounting for 24% of the 16.92 million visa applications.
In 2020, there were nearly 654,000 such applications, or 22% of the total 2.9 million, followed by 536,200 applications last year, corresponding to 18% of the 2.92 million.
The percentage of visa refusals has been gradually increasing due to coronavirus restrictions and closed borders.
While in 2019, the rejected share of visas was 1.5% of the total number of applications, in 2020, it climbed to 2.6% and reached 3.2% in 2021.
Russian citizens can apply for tourist visas at the embassies of Italy, Greece, Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland and Slovenia. But currently, due to the high demand and mutual expulsion of diplomats, it is not easy to get a visa at visa centers in Russia, even to these countries.
While the Schengen visa issuance period took only three working days in 2019, the term has now increased to two weeks or even more.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Federal Agency for Tourism advised Russian citizens to assess the risks when planning trips to "unfriendly countries."
Meanwhile, Denmark and the Netherlands also do not issue short-term visas. The waiting period for obtaining Schengen visas from France, Greece and Spain may sometimes take several months.
Ban on visas
Poland supports banning Schengen visas for Russians at the EU level. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk announced this week that Warsaw is also developing a solution that will allow it to deny visas to Russians.
"We can expect a decision on this issue in the coming weeks," he said, adding the country has not issued tourist visas to Russians for several months. Currently, entry documents are issued to a limited number of people.
Wawrzyk also said that Poland supports the expansion of EU sanctions against Russia.
After Russia launched a "special military operation" in Ukraine on Feb. 24, Polish President Andrzej Duda said he would advocate a ban on Russians entering the country if the situation worsened.
In March, the Foreign Ministry allowed the closure of the border crossing between Poland and Russia in the Kaliningrad region.
Closure of borders for Russians with Schengen visas
On Aug. 11, Estonia banned entry even to Russian citizens with Schengen visas issued by the country's own authorities.
"The government, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decided that in a week, a sanction will be imposed on valid Schengen visas issued by Estonia to Russian citizens. They will be banned from entering Estonia," said Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu.
He noted that there will be some exceptions to this rule.
Reinsalu specified that currently, Estonia has data on more than 50,000 valid Schengen visas issued to Russian citizens.
Earlier, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she considers it necessary to prohibit granting tourist visas for Russian citizens to enter EU countries.
“Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right,” said Kallas, insisting that it is necessary to stop tourism from Russia.
Later, German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said the proposal had been submitted for discussion in the EU.
Suspension of visas by Lithuania, Czech Republic
Right after the start of Russia's offensive in Ukraine, Lithuania suspended the issuance of Schengen visas to Russian citizens.
"As a sign of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, who faced the military aggression of Russia, the Foreign Ministry of Lithuania suspends the issuance of visas to citizens of the Russian Federation," said an announcement on the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry's Twitter page.
On Aug. 15, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said his country had practically stopped issuing tourist visas to Russians and was issuing visas only for humanitarian reasons.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic on June 23 said it will not be issuing visas and temporary residence permits to Russian and Belarusian citizens through March 2023.
An exception was made for trips with a humanitarian purpose, while the decision didn't apply to those who already had a residence permit.
Last week, the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, backed the proposal for an EU-wide visa ban for Russian citizens.
“The flat halting of Russian visas by all EU member states could be another very effective sanction,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said in a statement.
His remarks lent support to a push by Estonia, Latvia and Finland for all EU states to stop issuing tourist visas to Russians and preventing other means to circumvent the ban.
Earlier, Lipavsky had already announced that he would raise the issue at the summit of EU foreign ministers which will be held on Aug. 31 in Prague.
Latvia, Finland demand visa restrictions
On Aug. 14, Latvian President Egils Levits said Latvia, together with Finland, Estonia, the Czech Republic and other like-minded countries, should put forward a demand at the European level to stop issuing tourist visas to Russian citizens.
Levits also pointed to additional sanctions against Russia, adding the country considers it necessary to review the residence permits and visas already issued to Russians by Latvia.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin also called for a ban on tourist visas to Russians at the EU-wide level.
Marin claimed that Russians use Finland as a "transit point" as they pass to other EU countries.
Helsinki will cut the number of Russian tourist visas it issues by 90% due to rising discontent over the war on Ukraine.
However, currently there is a lack of unanimous support among all EU member states for travel restrictions on Russian citizens.
'Complete closure of entry to Europe for all Russians'
On Aug. 9 in an interview with the Washington Post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Western countries to bar entry to Russians. He said Russians should "live in their own world until they change their philosophy."
Zelenskyy believes that the only way to discourage Russia from seizing foreign territories is to ban Russians from visiting Western states.
Meanwhile, the European Commission stressed that it is exclusively the EU countries’ right to decide on visa applications and eventually refuse Russian citizens.
EU “member states are solely responsible for the assessment of the visa applications on an individual basis and also for the issuance of visas,” said Anitta Hipper, the European Commission's spokeswoman on home affairs, migration and internal security.
Slipping into forgetfulness
Commenting on the proposed and actual restrictions for Russian citizens in Europe, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov alluded to events in the run-up to and during World War II.
“In their unfriendliness, many of these countries slip into forgetfulness, and they resort to statements that we heard from several European countries in the center of Europe 80 years ago,” he said.
He said the attempt to isolate Russians has no prospects.
“The EU countries and North American nations are competing with each other in anti-Russian sanctions, but their arsenal of measures is already drying up. Therefore, irrational decisions are being made and dangers can’t be ruled out,” he said.
Peskov also warned of “retaliatory measures” if Russian citizens are denied Schengen visas.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also said that the denial of entry to the EU for Russians who need medical services is “outrageous.”
Commenting on the calls of some European officials to stop issuing visas to Russians, Zakharova pointed out that EU countries, based on their own obligations, do not have the right to restrict the issuance of visas to any group of persons on a national basis.
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