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Ukraine war sanctions: Finland to limit tourist visas for Russians, Pekka Haavisto tells Euronews

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By David Mac Dougall
FILE: Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto
FILE: Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Finland's foreign minister Pekka Haavisto told Euronews the government has approved plans to start limiting the number of visas they issue to Russians.

The Finnish government has come under increased public and political pressure in the last ten days to close a perceived sanctions "loophole" which allows tens of thousands of Russians to come to the EU via car or bus through Finnish border crossings  - even though Russians are banned by sanctions from flying or taking the train to the European Union. 

Haavisto says ministers gave the green light on Thursday to a scheme that would restrict the number of appointments available to Russians at Finnish diplomatic missions in Russia, which has the effect of reducing the number of visas ultimately issued. 

It's a short-term bureaucratic fix to a problem the Finns hope the EU will solve for them at the next foreign ministers meeting in the Czech Republic at the end of August. 

"We are certainly not the only country that has a problem with this issue," said Haavisto.

"And if we reduce the amount of Schengen visas we issue, we should have a more coordinated EU approach," he added.

The Finns have 12 different categories of visas they can issue -- including for students, workers, family members and tourism -- and Haavisto said the most simple and legal way they can reduce the numbers of tourist visas is to "prioritise the time slots for other types of visas and give a bit less numbers to tourism visas". 

Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP
Customs officers check Russian cars on July 28, 2022 at the Nuijamaa border crossing in Lappeenranta, southeast FinlandAlessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP

Groundswell of support to stop sanctions-busting Russian tourists

At a more grassroots level, Finns have been showing their distaste at the flow of Russian tourists coming over the border since the middle of July, when Moscow dropped the last remaining COVID-related border restrictions. 

A political youth group paid for a huge billboard next to the border crossing with Russia which says: "While you are on vacation, Ukrainians have no home to return to"; while the southeast city of Lappeenranta, where most Russian day-trippers stop for shopping, will play the Ukrainian national anthem every day in August and raise Ukrainian flags at the port of entry into Finland, and in shopping centres. 

Finnish retailers have been reminded not to sell any luxury goods to Russian tourists which would be a breach of sanctions; and Finnish customs agents have confiscated some luxury items, and "goods that can contribute to Russia's industrial and military capabilities, such as aids used in navigation" in a series of enhanced checks and searches of Russian tourists crossing back over the border. 

Meanwhile, a citizen's initiative calling for a ban on new visas for Russians, and to cancel existing visas, has raised more than 7,000 signatures since it launched at the end of July. The petition would have to gather 50,000 signatures within six months in order for it to be considered by parliamentary committees.

"It is important to remember that the biggest issuers of Schengen visas to Russians are Greece, Italy and Spain," Foreign Minister Haavisto, a veteran Green party politician, told Euronews in a phone interview from Helsinki. 

"And when there are visas given by those countries we cannot stop the people on our borders because Schengen guarantees non-discrimination based on nationality," he noted. 

The Finns also want to be very careful not to stop people crossing the border for family reunification reasons - a large chunk of eastern Russia used to be part of Finland until it was ceded to the Russians in reparations after WWII, and there are deep and enduring cross-border family ties. 

There are also an estimated 84,000 native Russian speakers who live in Finland, many with Finnish partners and extended families. Haavisto says 30% of the people going over the border into Russia now are actually Finns.  

"For us, it is important that we have a peaceful border, and people who need to cross it can cross it. But we don't want to become a passageway to Helsinki Airport which Russians start to use as a transit point," he told Euronews.

"That needs not just a Finnish decision, but a wider Schengen decision."