The Debate Over Banning Russian Tourists Is Dividing Europe

LAplandia welcomes shoppers with its strong aroma of smoked salmon. The sprawling warehouse of a store—located on the outskirts of Lappeenranta, Finland—opens to a display counter stocked with great slabs of the fish on plastic trays, some of it cured with herbs, some of it sprinkled with local lingonberries. But Elena wasn’t there for fish. To buy shoes and warm clothes for her child, the Russian 30-year old (who refused to reveal her last name in social media attacks) drove 125 miles to St. Petersburg from Russia on Aug 31. There was an urgency to her shopping as she beelined past the candy-colored heaps of plastic sandals and gigantic bags of chips, to a row containing industrial-sized bottles of laundry detergent—aware of a looming decision by the Finnish government “I’m worried they’re going to close the border again,” she said. “So we’ve been stocking up. This is my third trip in a week.”

Elena was right to be concerned. Some European countries are taking this concern seriously ever since Volodymyr Zilensky (the Ukrainian president) called for the West to ban Russian visas. On Sept. 1, Finland—which shares a 830-mile land border with Russia—began sharply restricting the number of tourist visas it issued, from 1,000 to 100 per day. And the day before, when Elena made her third trip to Laplandia, the E.U.’s foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Prague to make it harder—but not impossible—for Russians to travel. More restrictions may be in the future if some ministers get their way.

“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,” Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told broadcaster Yle on Aug. 8.

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Marin’s country is one of the few access points into Europe after the E.U. Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a blanket ban on flying to or from Russia was imposed. Since Russia lifted its remaining COVID-19 restrictions on July 15, the number of people driving across at border station Nuijamaa near Lappeenranta—as well as others—has surged. “I would say it has grown about 5% per week,” says Petri Kurkinen, deputy chief of the local Finnish border police. “Right now, we’re at about 3,000 people per day.”

Many of those people, like Elena, had just come for a day’s shopping and would return to Russia that same evening. But others would travel to coastal cottages in Finland for summer vacations or drive straight to the airport in Helsinki, the country’s capital, and then board flights for Spain, France, and Greece. According to Frontex, the E.U.’s border agency, more than 1 million Russians have done just that since the invasion, most of them via Finland and Estonia, which also shares a land border with Russia.

Russian customers visit Laplandia Market in Lappeenranta on July 28, 2022.

Alessandro Rampazzo—AFP/Getty Images

For some of Europe’s leaders, the sight of Russian tourists sunning themselves on their beach or sitting in outdoor cafés while some of their fellow citizens participate in the devastation of Ukraine, was morally untenable. The security risk was also a concern. “What do the chemical attack in Salisbury in 2018, the Czech arms depot explosion in 2014 and the killing of a Chechen dissident in Germany in 2019 have in common?” wrote Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in a statement to TIME. “The answer: Russian agents using European tourist visas. This is a pattern we can clearly see. The risk of Russian agents pretending to be tourists is high in a hostile Russia. [the] E.U. is now logically greater than ever. And they do not just spy, they are often an active part of Russia’s hybrid and information warfare that’s happening alongside conventional war.”

Estonia stopped issuing Russian tourists visas in August 18th and also prohibited entry using any previously issued. Since then, it and other countries like Lithuania, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, have advocated for an outright ban on all Russian tourists throughout the Schengen Area—which covers 26 European countries and stretches across most of the continent. European travel to Europe for humanitarian purposes or visiting relatives, asylum seekers, and other reasons would be protected. “I simply don’t think that it is appropriate that at the same time when Ukrainian men and families have to defend their country, Russian men and Russian families can enjoy beaches in southern Europe,” says Estonian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Urmas Paet, who serves as vice-chair of the E.U.’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

This moral reasoning is not enough to justify a political calculation. It’s possible to increase the suffering of Russians who are wealthy enough to travel abroad, which will lead to opposition to Putin’s government. “So far, people from Russian cities don’t actually feel the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” says Paet. “The majority of soldiers come from poor provinces, not from Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, if Europe prohibits tourist from visiting it would also help to increase understanding between Moscow and St. Petersburg. And that may influence policy making.”

Other countries like France, Spain, Germany and Greece however, have rejected this argument. Leaders argue that punishing ordinary Russians because of the actions of their government is unfair, especially in an authoritarian nation where the cost of dissent can be high. Other leaders argued that visa restrictions would hinder the efforts of dissidents trying to cooperate with foreign counterparts. “While limiting contacts with regime representatives and authorities to areas of vital EU interest, we need to strategically fight for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Russian population—at least the segments not yet completely estranged from ‘the West,’” read a joint memo from France and Germany, according to a Reuters report on Aug. 30.

The ban’s opponents also doubted that it could generate sufficient dissatisfaction in Russia, where the term “war” is still illegal, to make any meaningful impact on its regime. “The political argument is completely misleading because less than a third of the Russian population has a passport to travel abroad,” says Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Instead of leading to policy change, it would instead be “a wonderful argument for Kremlin propaganda. It will be presented as proof that it’s not about Russia waging a war against Ukraine, it’s the West waging a war against Russia, because the West is Russophobic. The Kremlin will say, ‘see, they don’t like Russians, they don’t want to see Russians in Europe.’”

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The tensions within the E.U. were high ahead of the Prague summit. Tensions between the E.U. and its member states had risen sharply over the ban. But with European unity at stake, the bloc’s foreign ministers managed to reach a compromise, and decided to suspend a 2007 agreement that facilitated visas for Russians. (It’s unclear when this will take effect.) This will result in a rise in the price of tourist visas from 35 euro to 80. The amount of documentation that applicants need to be certified will also increase. Additionally, visa applications will take longer to process from 10 to 15 days.

The ECFR’s Dumoulin sees the decision as a success simply because it represents a compromise. “At some point, European unity is itself a policy goal. And it’s a much more important goal than setting symbols.”

Yet others aren’t so sure. The decision represents “a step in the right direction,” according to MEP Paet, but it “doesn’t go far enough.” And because it doesn’t prevent some countries from taking further action, as Finland and Estonia have done, the debate may not be over yet. It has been shown that, in some instances, Schengen’s visa-free travel requirements among its member countries can be flexible as expected.

These cases can pose security threats. “By the end of the meeting in Prague, a big number of E.U. Countries were persuaded that the 12 million Russians with Schengen visas valid for long periods of time was a serious problem to E.U. security,” Lithuanian minister of foreign affairs, Gabrielius Landsbergis, wrote to TIME. “Thus, E.U. Member states that border Russia could apply regional or national security measures. Together with Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, in the coming weeks, we will seek to find solutions that will allow us to significantly limit the flow of Russian tourists.”

Tourist buses from Russia arrive at Lappeenranta’s Nuijamaa border crossing to enter Finland. Many are here to experience the Finnish summer, while others are planning on traveling further into Europe.

Alessandro Rampazzo—AFP/Getty Images

According to Mayor Kimmo Jarva, the Finns seem happy with new restrictions in Lappeenranta. It is located less than 40 minutes from Vyborg, Russia. It has had a history of friendly relations with the neighboring south for many years. In fact, it counts around 3,000 Russian-speakers in its 72,000 population. Lappeenranta’s economy also relies—or has relied— heavily on Russian shoppers for years. “Before COVID, there were about 4,000 Russians coming every day,” Jarva says. “Now we are losing about 1 million euros every day. That started with COVID, but even now, many think we shouldn’t let them come. Although his city is “suffering economically,” Jarva says the sacrifice is worthwhile.

Jarva, from his window at city hall can see out to the cemetery. Every headstone is associated with a Russian soldier killed in World War 2. That memory helps explain the local population’s desire to show its support to Ukraine—and just maybe irk Russian tourists.

So every evening at 7:30 p.m. for the past month, city hall speakers have boomed Ukraine’s national anthem. “We wanted to show our support, but also put a little bit of pressure on Russians, because we think it’s wrong that they can come and live a normal life,” Jarva says of the initiative. “Our citizens told us to do something. This is democracy.”

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