The destructive and hawkish ideology of Vladimir Putin and his mafia state cronies should be persecuted just like any other aggressive and undemocratic system of beliefs, Aleksandar Đokić writes.
Each time a case of verbal or physical abuse by Russian-speaking people against either Ukrainian refugees or liberal and outspoken citizens of the EU is reported, a new wave of debate revolving around banning tourist visas for Russian citizens appears.
This kind of backlash is to be expected as long as Russia's war of aggression rages on in Europe.
Many Europeans are rightfully outraged by the criminal, atrocities-riddled actions of the Russian state, in turn feeling threatened by anything remotely Russian.
While it is a human reaction, it can at times resemble the dread of anything Muslim, Arabic, or even remotely Middle Eastern in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Is this blanket response truly justified, or is it a knee-jerk reaction based on black-and-white thinking?
What is truly 'Russian', after all?
For starters, how do we define someone being “Russian”? Is a “Russian” any person holding a passport of the Russian state?
Around a fifth of the Russian population is of non-Russian ethnicity and there are a lot of cases of unreported (in the official census statistics) dual or mixed identities, that came about historically due to the presence of many different cultures and nations in what is today the territory of the Russian Federation.
Unless we engage in the dubious practice of determining one’s actual ethnic identity in their name, it is very hard to determine who is “Russian”, and if our aim is a blanket ban on all travel from Russia itself, we will end up hurting many of those who aren’t ethnically Russian at all or do not associate themselves with the Russian state.
This kind of oversimplification of ethnic identity that would result in holding a grudge against perceived ethnic Russians or any person who speaks Russian as a mother tongue would be a serious step back and away from the ideals embraced by the European states of today.
Democratic political systems cannot participate in such practices, reminiscent of the long-forgotten phrenology.
What political systems can ban is an ideology which inspires and feeds these unwanted behavioural patterns, especially hatemongering, warmongering, or any verbal or physical act of demeaning people based on their identity and background.
This is why European countries should ban Russian imperialism as an ideology, and persecute it like they persecute other forms of extremist ideologies such as Neo-Nazism or violent extremism.
Travelling on a tourist visa doesn't have to mean it's for pleasure
This brings us to the main point: why are we still debating tourist visas for Russians after 19 months of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
Why do we constantly and exclusively debate the presence of Russian tourists in Europe, when millions of Russian nationals have been emigrating to the West for decades prior to the war against Ukraine and have already become citizens of various Western countries?
Some of these people remain proponents of Russian imperialism and spread it online or through political activism without any consequences or punishment by law. Yet, we still seem to be more infuriated by tourist visa holders.
But tourism is a luxury, not a right, correct? Yes and no.
Viewed solely as an act of receiving pleasure from breaking the habits of mundane life by travelling to a different and exciting place — it is certainly a luxury.
When viewed as an escape route from a repressive autocratic system that is in place in Putin’s Russia, it ceases to be a luxury and starts to be a necessity.
For some, leaving Russia on a tourist stamp in their passport was the only way to not end up in the country's terrifying and intentionally harsh prison system, or worse. For others, it meant not being forced to pick up a gun and participate in the aggression in the neighbouring country.
Some might rightfully ask, but aren’t there procedures for people like that to receive political asylum, besides using tourist visas? There are, but they have proven to be very ineffective, as they haven’t produced tangible results in the last year and a half.
What European and other Western states have not done yet is come up with a clear policy on what they would like to see from the holders of Russian passports they keep letting in.
Let's attract the best and the brightest instead
A major gain for Europe and the West would be to focus on attracting two groups of people holding Russian passports: highly skilled specialists (with their families) and members of the educated progressive circles, including youth.
Instead of debating tourist visas, which can be taken away at any moment by political decree, the Western states should adopt a unified political demographic strategy toward the Russian Federation.
If swift administrative procedures are put in place which would make it possible to provide an accessible escape route to those holders of Russian passports with a desire to emigrate to the West, while possessing either highly valued skills or a progressive worldview, the question of tourist visas wouldn’t even come up.
This kind of strategy would deal a political and demographic blow to Putin’s Russia, while simultaneously strengthening the democratic world, both economically and morally.
While Russia would further deteriorate, already trapped in its own quagmire, the West would once again become a haven of liberty, and the Russian youth would fight to be a part of it tooth and nail.
It's all about persecuting Putin's imperialism
In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget that the free world is not in a struggle against everything and everyone Russian.
The battle is being waged between the ideal of the free, democratic order and the Russian revanchist state, whose official propaganda partly relies on the bellicose ideology of Russian imperialism.
The destructive and hawkish ideology of Vladimir Putin and his cronies should be persecuted just like any other aggressive and undemocratic system of beliefs, no matter if its proponents are Russian tourists or already naturalised immigrants from the USSR or Russia.
A strategy, which would attract progressive holders of Russian passports and give the West the upper hand in the political strife against the most dangerous challenger to peace in Europe today, is direly needed.
In the meantime, let's keep in mind that a European tourist visa is often the only way for those Russians who refuse to participate in Putin's mafia state to escape the consequences of saying "no" to its toxic, murderous face.
Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. He was formerly a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.
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