While the Russian army has been fighting for every village of the Luhansk region, their compatriots have been fighting for vacant beach chairs and discounted brand clothes in the resort towns of Europe. This happened because the European Union did not introduce a ban on tourist visas for Russians. Is such a ban needed?
In 2011 Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev wrote an article that is essential to the study of XXI century authoritarian regimes. Krastev compared the Soviet Union with modern Russia, arguing that these two states sport an array of differences. They have distinctive migration regimes. The Soviet borders were open only to those affiliated with the party. In contemporary Russia, there are no barriers to exit.
The US and Western European states encouraged emigration from the USSR during the Cold War. The escapees were few, thus each brought exclusive information regarding the hidden realities of the Soviet regime. They were employed at research institutes that studied the Soviet Union. Others worked at radio stations that broadcasted to the Soviet Union, such as Radio Free Europe, BBC, or Deutsche Welle.
Now the situation is reversed. It is not known how many Russians left their country since the onset of the full-scale invasion, but the count is in the hundreds of thousands. Therefore, the policy is substantially different too. European states do not have the means to make sure that there are no spies or clandestine Putin sympathies among the newcomers.
This is the reason why the Czech deputy minister of education Radka Wildová sent out a letter to all the universities in the republic, according to which Russian or Belarussian citizens are not allowed to study several high-tech disciplines. The list includes cybernetics, robotics, aviation, space science, and biotechnology. It is unknown whether, in the future, some of the alumni would provide the received information to the Russian spy services, willingly or under pressure. What is known is that Russia craves this data: in 2021 Russian vice-consul in Munich recruited a German-Russian scientist Ilnur Nagaev to receive information on the European space program.
Tourists and spies
In July 2022, the matter took a turn for the worse. Russia lifted its pandemic measures which made short trips to Europe more feasible for the Russians. In 2019, before the pandemic, 4 million Schengen tourist visas were issued to Russian citizens. They have rented tourist accommodation at least 8 million times.
The summer is the most important season to tourism in Europe. “We have seen an enormous rise in the number of Russian citizens coming into or passing through Estonia,” said Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu. It is unlikely that European security services can check every application submitted by Russian citizens to European consulates.
In May 2022, the European Commission has approved guidelines according to which consulates shall decline visas to those Russians who are affiliated with sanctioned individuals or organizations. But now, amid tourist seasons, the urge to recover the tourist sector from the pandemic may outweigh this policy. In Greece, this sector is responsible for a quarter of all jobs. In Croatia, Austria, Spain, and Italy, this indicator stands at the 10% mark.
Having received a visa in a tourism-dependent country, Russians are free to move around Europe. In July 2022, the Ukrainian Chief Directorate of Intelligence stated that Russian spies had been ordered to track military consignments destined for Ukraine. They were forced to recruit locals, but those refused, reporting these proposals to law enforcement. Therefore, such missions could be carried out by the Russian “tourists”.
Lithuania limited the number of issued tourist visas almost immediately after the full-scale invasion began. Later, Poland stopped issuing tourist visas too. In June, Norway began rejecting most applications for tourist visas. Latvia joined on August 4. Estonia introduced similar measures on August 18. Finland will be the last EU member state bordering Russia to enforce this policy in September 2022. Finns are to come short of a total ban because the existing legislation does not allow such a policy.
However, this does not suffice. Russians can still cross the borders with these countries if they have a visa issued by another Schengen Area member. In addition, the Russians can cross the EU external border via Serbia, Turkey, and Moldova.
The way out of this situation may be a joint EU decision to stop the issuance of visas. On August 30-31, the member countries' ministers of foreign affairs will discuss this topic at an informal meeting in the Czech Republic, said the Czech minister Jan Lipavský. Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba will be present on the sidelines of this meeting.
"It is wrong that while Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel around Europe, be tourists," said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
Ivan Krastev believed that closed borders force the inhabitants of an authoritarian state to change it from within. Open borders, instead, are a safety valve to blow off steam.
In fact, the ban on issuing tourist visas is in the interests of the EU. The special services of most member countries are unable to compete with the Russian security forces. Thanks to this, Russian agents can murder Chechen war veterans in Germany and blow up warehouses in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. The Austrian intelligence service was infiltrated by so many Russian agents that other European agencies stopped sharing information with it, The Washington Post reported.
It is impossible to completely ban all Russians from entering because it contradicts all the fundamental principles of European legislation, said Sarah Ganty, a doctor of law from the University of Ghent. After all, banning Russians is not an end in itself. Instead, Europeans should understand who they let into their countries, said the former Estonian Director of Security Coordination Eerik-Niiles Kross.