E.U. to suspend visa agreement with Russia, but not ban Russian tourists

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European Union countries have reached a political agreement to suspend a visa facilitation accord with Russia, making it more difficult and expensive for Russian tourists to get visas, but the move falls far short of the blanket ban some leaders are demanding.

The compromise decision, reached at a ministers meeting in Prague on Wednesday, comes after weeks of calls from Ukrainian officials and some EU leaders for a ban. Though the 27-member bloc has already banned Russian flights from EU airspace and imposed sanctions on more than 1,000 people linked to the war, the question of tourism is deeply contested, underscoring an enduring divide over how to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Announcing the agreement, officials noted that countries could take additional measures at a national level. Ahead of the meeting, the five EU countries that share land borders with Russia — Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — said they would take action if the EU did not.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and some EU leaders have argued that restricting Russian visitors would strengthen the bloc’s sanctions, improve security and send a message to Russians about the costs of full-scale invasion.

Opponents, including Germany and France, say a blanket ban would unfairly punish all Russians. They are concerned that limiting visas would keep Kremlin critics from escaping. And they worry that a ban would play into Putin’s hands by lending credence to his claims of Western Russophobia.

Ban Russian tourists? EU is divided on visa restrictions.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Wednesday that an uptick in tourists from Russia convinced member states that something had to be done. “We have seen many Russians traveling for leisure and shopping as if no war was raging in Ukraine,” he told reporters in Prague.

The suspension will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued, Borrell said. “It’s going to be more difficult, it’s going to be a longer process. Consequently, the number of new visitors will be substantially reduced.”

The full suspension of the 2007 visa facilitation agreement, which was partially suspended at the outset of the war, will mean that wait times and costs will probably go up for Russian tourists. The cost will reportedly jump from 35 euros to 80 euros (roughly the same in dollars). But vacationing, for many, can continue.

The countries calling for a full or nearly full ban see the suspension of the facilitation accord as a first step but will be pushing hard for additional measures at the EU level.

With flights banned, most Russian tourists are driving to neighboring countries, particularly Finland and Estonia. From there, they are able to travel anywhere in the 26-country visa-free travel zone known as the Schengen Area.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has said that absent an EU-wide solution, Russia’s neighbors may team up to reduce the number of tourists entering the bloc.

In a joint statement circulated ahead of Wednesday’s talks, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania said that until the European Commission proposed measures to “decisively decrease” the number of Russians entering the EU and Schengen areas, they would consider “temporary measures” at the national level. These measures should include exemptions for “dissidents as well as other humanitarian cases,” the statement said.

Lithuania is among several countries, including Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic, that have stopped issuing most short-stay visas to Russian citizens.

Estonia has said it will invalidate previously issued short-stay visas. Latvia is requiring Russian travelers entering with existing visas to sign statements opposing the war with Ukraine — an idea Landsbergis also broached.

Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, has announced that it will cut the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent starting this week.

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

Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, remain focused on more-restrictive measures. “Let them live in their own world until they change their philosophy,” Zelensky said in an interview with The Washington Post this month. “This is the only way to influence Putin.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted Wednesday that “travel to the EU has had zero transformative effect on Russia.”

“Since visa facilitation in 2007, Moscow has attacked Georgia, launched a war on Ukraine, committed multiple crimes — all of it with overwhelming popular support,” he continued. “To transform Russia, shut the door on Russian tourists.”

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