The backlash against Russian tourists is dividing Europe

Llandia welcomes the buyer with the powerful aroma of smoked salmon. The sprawling warehouse of a shop located on the outskirts of Lappeenranta, Finland, opens onto a display case stocked with large slabs of fish on plastic trays, some cured with herbs, some sprinkled with local cranberries. But Elena wasn’t there for the fish. On the morning of Aug. 31, the 30-year-old Russian woman (who declined to give her last name to avoid criticism on social media) had driven about 125 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia, to buy warm clothes and shoes for her young son, plus other household supplies that were difficult to find at home due to EU and US sanctions. There was an urgency to her shopping as she made her way past piles of candy-colored plastic sandals and giant bags of chips to a row containing industrial-sized bottles of laundry detergent — aware of the Finnish government’s looming decision, “I’m worried they’re going to close again the border,” she said. “So we stocked up. This is my third trip in a week.”

Elena had cause for concern. Ever since August 8, when the Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky called on Western countries to ban visas for Russian tourists, some European countries took the proposal very seriously. On September 1, Finland, which has an 830-mile land border with Russia, began sharply limiting the number of tourist visas it issues from 1,000 to 100 a day. And the day before, when Elena made her third trip to Lapland, EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Prague to make it more difficult, but not impossible, for Russians to travel. If some of these ministers get their way, more restrictions could come.

“It is not right that at the same time that Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal aggressive war in Europe, Russians should be able to live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists,” Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told broadcaster Yle on August 8.

Read more: “There is an atmosphere of fear.” With flights banned, Russians flee by train to Europe

Marin’s country is one of the few access points to Europe after the EU imposed a total ban on flights to and from Russia three days after Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Since Russia lifted its remaining COVID-19 restrictions on July 15, the number of people passing through the Nuijamaa border station near Lappeenranta, as well as others, has increased. “I would say it’s increasing by about 5% per week,” says Petri Kurkinen, deputy chief of the local Finnish border police. “Right now we have about 3,000 people a day.”

Many of these people, like Elena, had just come for a day at the market and would be returning to Russia that evening. But others will travel to seaside villas in Finland for summer holidays or drive straight to the airport in Helsinki, the country’s capital, and then board flights to Spain, France and Greece. According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, more than 1 million Russians have done just that since the invasion, most of them through Finland and Estonia, which also shares a land border with Russia.

Russian customers shop at Laplandia Market on July 28, 2022 in Lappeenranta, Finland.

Alessandro Rampazzo—AFP/Getty Images

For some European leaders, the sight of Russian tourists basking on the beach or sitting in outdoor cafes while some of their fellow citizens participated in the devastation of Ukraine was morally untenable. They were also worried about the security threat. “What do the chemical attack in Salisbury in 2018, the explosion at a Czech weapons depot in 2014, and the killing of a Chechen dissident in Germany in 2019 have in common?” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kalas wrote in a statement to TIME. “The answer: Russian agents using European tourist visas. We can see a clear pattern. Against the background of an aggressive Russia in the neighborhood, the risk of Russian agents impersonating tourists [the] The EU is logically higher than ever. And they’re not just spying, they’re often an active part of Russia’s hybrid and information warfare, which happens alongside conventional warfare.

On August 18, Estonia stopped issuing tourist visas to Russians and stopped allowing entry on already issued ones. Since then, she and other countries such as Lithuania, Denmark and the Czech Republic have advocated a total ban on all Russian tourists in the Schengen area, which covers 26 European countries and stretches across most of the continent. (European travel for other purposes, such as humanitarian reasons, visiting family or seeking asylum, will remain protected.) “I just don’t think it’s appropriate at the same time that Ukrainian men and families have to protect their Russians and Russian families can to enjoy the beaches of southern Europe,” says Estonian Member of the European Parliament (EP) Urmas Paet, who is the Vice-President of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Beyond this moral reasoning lies a political calculation: that increasing the pain for those Russians with enough disposable income to travel to Europe will encourage opposition to Putin’s regime. “So far, people in Russian cities are not really feeling the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Paet says. “The majority of soldiers come from poor provinces, not from Moscow and St. Petersburg. But if Europe bans tourists from coming, it will also increase understanding in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And this can influence policy making.

But other countries, including Germany, France, Spain and Greece, opposed that argument. some say the leaders that it is unfair to punish ordinary Russians for their government’s policies, especially in an authoritarian country where the cost of dissent is high. Others argued that the visa ban would hinder the work of dissidents trying to cooperate with their colleagues outside Russia. “While limiting contacts with regime representatives and authorities to areas of vital EU interest, we must fight strategically for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Russian population – at least the segments not yet completely alienated from ‘the West,'” read joint note from France and Germany, according to a Reuters report on 30 Aug

Opponents of the ban also expressed doubt that, in a country where it remains illegal to talk of war as actually being at war, it would generate enough resentment in Russia to have any significant impact on the regime. “The political argument is completely misleading, as less than a third of the Russian population has a passport to travel abroad,” said 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 great argument for Kremlin propaganda. It will be presented as proof that it is not Russia waging war against Ukraine, but the West waging war against Russia because the West is Russophobic. The Kremlin will say, “Look, they don’t like Russians, they don’t want to see Russians in Europe.”

Read more: In a war of ideas, banning Russian propaganda does more harm than good

Ahead of the Prague meeting, tensions between EU countries over the proposed ban had risen sharply. But with European unity at stake, the bloc’s foreign ministers managed to reach a compromise and decided to suspend the 2007 agreement that made visas easier for Russians. (It is not clear when this will come into effect.) As a result, the price of a tourist visa will rise from €35 to €80, the volume of documentation required of applicants will increase, and the length of time it takes to obtain a visa extends from a maximum of 10 days to 15.

ECFR’s Dumoulin sees the decision as a success simply because it represents a compromise. “At some point, European unity is a political goal in itself. And this is a much more important purpose than placing symbols.

Others, however, are not so sure. The decision represents a “step in the right direction”, according to MEP Paet, but “doesn’t go far enough”. And since that hasn’t stopped some countries from taking further action, as Finland and Estonia have done, the debate may not be over yet. As border closures during the pandemic have shown, the Schengen agreement, which requires visa-free travel between member states, can be more flexible than expected in certain cases.

These cases involve security risks. “By the end of the Prague meeting, a large number of EU countries were convinced that 12 million Russian citizens with valid, long-term Schengen visas were a security problem for the EU,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote to TIME. “Thus, EU member states bordering Russia can implement national or regional security measures. Together with Estonia, Latvia and Poland, in the coming weeks we will strive to find solutions that will allow us to significantly limit the flow of Russian tourists.

At the Nuyämaa border crossing in Lappeenranta, buses with Russian tourists flock to Finland. Some want to enjoy the Finnish summer, while others plan to travel further into Europe.

Alessandro Rampazzo—AFP/Getty Images

In Lappeenranta, which is less than 40 miles from its sister city of Vyborg in Russia, Finns are largely happy with the new restrictions, says Mayor Kimo Järva. The city has a long history of peaceful relations with its neighbor to the south and actually counts around 3,000 Russian speakers among its population of 72,000. Lappeenranta’s economy also relies – or has relied – heavily on Russian buyers for years. “Before COVID, there were about 4,000 Russians coming every day,” Jarva says. “We are now losing about 1 million euros every day. It started with COVID, but even now many feel we shouldn’t let them come. Although his town is “suffering economically,” Jarva says the sacrifice is worth it.

From his window in City Hall, Jarva can look out onto a cemetery where every headstone, he says, belongs to a soldier shot by the Russians in World War II. This memory helps explain the desire of the local population to show their support for Ukraine – and perhaps just to annoy Russian tourists.

So every night at 19:30 for the past month, the loudspeakers of the town hall have been blaring the national anthem of Ukraine. “We wanted to show our support, but also put some pressure on the Russians, because we think it’s wrong for them to be able to 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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