Russian tourists at the borders of 5 states should answer the question “Whose Crimea”

Vladimir Putin's mural in Crimea
Crimea is Ours Reuters/Scanpix

Suppose all European Union countries cannot be persuaded not to issue tourist visas to Russians. In that case, the five Eastern European countries bordering Russia could form a regional bloc that would collectively agree not to admit Russian tourists but to welcome fleeing dissidents, Eglė Samoškaitė writing at tv3.lt news portal.

Such an agreement could include Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, says Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.

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The Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee discussed Lithuania’s position on sanctions against Russian tourists in a closed-door session on Tuesday, ahead of next week’s informal meeting of foreign ministers in Prague.

“The government’s position is that people, individuals travelling for tourism purposes, should not cross the borders of the European Union,” the Foreign Minister said after the meeting.

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“Lithuania’s position, which we also discussed in the committee, is that we seek a European solution first and foremost because it is the most sustainable, the fairest. If this is not found, we do not rule out the possibility of looking for a regional solution, which would involve the Baltic States, Poland and potentially Finland”, Landsbergis added.

Lithuania has restricted visas for Russian and Belarusian citizens since the start of the war but issues visas on humanitarian grounds when people want to leave these authoritarian states. There are thousands of such persons, the Minister said.

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In general, he said, all the visas issued do not differ in substance, whether they are tourist visas or humanitarian visas. The consular officer usually asks about the purpose of the person’s travel and checks the available information.

“There is no difference in the substance of the visa, only in the basis on which it is issued. That basis is determined by government policy. The decision is then taken by the consular officer in the country where the visa is issued, asking the traveller and checking the information available to him as to the purpose of his travel. If the person says that the purpose is what we would call a humanitarian purpose (whether it is a persecuted person, a member of the opposition where persecution may be imminent, or a family member of opposition members who has already escaped persecution), in that case, the visa could be issued. But in many cases, it is the same visa as for a person going to a Lithuanian beach,” Landsbergis said.

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The issue of visas for Russian tourists arose when Finland recently decided to restrict the issuance of visas. At the same time, Estonia announced that it would not admit Russian citizens with valid Schengen visas issued in Estonia and would also restrict the issuance of such visas. In addition, Latvia has also stopped issuing visas. This is in response to the recent increase in the number of Russian tourists crossing the border.

Mr Landsbergis stressed that the issuance of a visa does not automatically mean that a person is allowed to enter a country: the border guard has the right to take a decision on a case-by-case basis.

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If a regional solution were to be adopted, the model would be as follows: if there are doubts as to whether the admission of a particular person is in the interests of national security, he or she could be refused admission, even if he or she has a Schengen visa. In this case, Spain or Estonia would not even matter where the visa was issued.

“A simple example: a border guard has the right to ask, “Do you support the war in Ukraine?”, “Whose Crimea?” Suppose a person is crossing the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish or Polish border says that Crimea is not occupied. In that case, we can assume that his admission is not in the interests of the state’s national security,” Landsbergis said.

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“We have five countries in the European Union – Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – which have a border either with Russia or with Belarus. Basically, all tourists who come by road by car go through these five countries. The other routes, whether it is via Istanbul, Dubai, or Yerevan, are by plane. But the numbers are much smaller when it comes to the capitals or countries of the European Union. Therefore, a unified regional solution would result in a significant reduction in flows,” the Minister adds.

Mr Landsbergis said he did not want to raise expectations because a regional solution would be technically complicated, as it would have to be applied identically in all countries. “In other words, a person who receives one answer in Estonia would not receive a different one in Latvia, Lithuania or Poland,” the politician said.

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The first meeting on this will take place in Prague next week. Landsbergis did not rule out the possibility that countries could take unilateral political decisions in response to domestic political issues without negotiating.

It is not yet known whether the same decisions would apply to Russian and Belarusian citizens.

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“We can see the differences between the two countries, the differences in the attitudes of their citizens towards war. A large number of Belarusian citizens could be seen as hostages of their regime rather than active and conscious supporters of the regime’s actions. Therefore, we are looking for solutions. But there have also been publicised cases of non-sanctioned persons from sanctioned companies with non-Lithuanian visas coming to Lithuania, having fun and spending time here, raising legitimate questions in the public domain as to whether it is acceptable for us to have such persons in Lithuania,” the Minister said.

However, Plan A remains the search for a common European Union solution, although doubts have been expressed by both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Josep Borrell. However, the arguments of these politicians are based on the fear that visas will no longer be available to the various Russian dissidents. They can first enter the European Union with a simple visa and then apply for asylum if needed. Lithuania agrees that persecuted persons must necessarily retain the right to a visa but that tourists should not be allowed in.

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