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Germany refuses to back calls for Russia tourist visa ban

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By David Mac Dougall  with AP
FILE: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses the media during his first annual summer news conference in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.
FILE: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses the media during his first annual summer news conference in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is refusing to back growing calls for an EU-wide ban on giving tourist visas to Russians, even as some northern European countries act unilaterally to bring in their own visa restrictions.

Speaking in Oslo after a meeting with Nordic leaders, Scholz said: “This is not the war of the Russian people. It is Putin's war and we have to be very clear on that topic” 

“It is important to us to understand that there are a lot of people fleeing from Russia because they are disagreeing with the Russian regime,” he told a press conference on Monday in the Norwegian capital. 

Over the last month, Finland and Estonia have been among the leading voices calling for an EU-wide approach to tackle the issue of Russians exploiting a sanctions "loophole" which allows them to travel by land to the EU, when sanctions would otherwise prevent them from flying or taking the train.

There's concern that this lets Russians use international airports like Helsinki as a hub, to travel freely, go on holiday, and avoid the consequences that sanctions were intended to have: Spain, Italy and Greece are the EU countries which issue the most Schengen tourist visas to Russians.   

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who supports a tourist visa ban, said in Oslo that it was an issue the EU needs to discuss. 

"Ordinary Russian people didn't start the war, but at the same time we have to realise that they are supporting the war," Marin told a press conference with the other Nordic leaders and Scholz.

"I think it's not right that Russian citizens can travel, enter Europe's Schengen area, be tourists, see the sights, while Russia is killing people in Ukraine. It's wrong.

“It is not a black or white question, there are also different colours of grey. There are also many people in Russia who are against the war, who are under threat.,” she said. 

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wrote recently on Twitter that "visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right. Air travel from Russia is shut down. It means while Schengen countries issue visas, neighbours to Russia carry the burden (Finland, Estonia, Latvia - sole access points). Time to end tourism from Russia now."

Her comments caused a swift and outraged response from the Kremlin, with Dmitry Medvedev - former Russian prime minister and president - likening Kallas to a Nazi. 

Countries take action on their own

While the EU is not due to discuss the issue officially until the annual 'Gymnich' meeting of foreign ministers at the end of August, where Finland and the Baltic States will make a joint presentation on the issue, some countries have decided to take action themselves without waiting to see if there will be a coordinated response.

On Tuesday afternoon Finland announced it would reduce its Russian visa services by 90% of current levels, almost immediately. There are around a thousand people applying for Finnish Schengen visas each day at diplomatic missions, and this will now be limited to around 100.

The Finns will also set up a new category of visa that would allow Putin's political enemies, or anyone who has been persecuted by the Russian state such as journalists or activists, to apply and travel to the EU.

Last week, Estonia decided to stop offering visa services to Russians altogether and will refuse to let in any Russians with Estonia-issued Schengen tourist visas at its borders, with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu urging other countries to take similar action. 

In a video message on Monday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the discussion about whether or not to give tourist visas to Russians was "expanding every day". 

"New states and new politicians are joining [the discussion]," said Zelenskyy. "Ultimately it should lead to appropriate decisions."