Across Europe, beaches and cities are filled with tourists. Among them, perhaps keeping their voices low, is a sprinkling of Russians. But if some politicians have their way, this may be the last summer Russian tourists can spend on a Mediterranean beach.
Countries including Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and the Czech Republic have called for the EU to limit or block short-term Schengen visas for Russians, in protest at their country’s invasion of Ukraine.
After six months of war, the proposal echoes widespread frustration with a Russian public that seems either unable or unwilling to mount a meaningful resistance to the war being waged in their name. The situation has been aggravated by high-profile incidents including a Russian woman harassing two Ukrainian refugees in Europe.
“Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians,” Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas wrote on Twitter last week. “Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right.”
But German chancellor Olaf Scholz rejected the call, saying a blanket ban on visas for Russians was “hard to imagine”. EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the measure at an informal meeting this month, although universal approval from the bloc’s 27 members would be needed.
The proposal has also set off a heated debate among Russians – including vocal opponents of the war, often living in exile in Europe – about how a visa ban could mark a step toward isolation reminiscent of the Soviet period.
“I don’t see anything good in forbidding Russians from Europe because they need to see a free world,” said Ilya Krasilshchik, a Russian online publisher who has been threatened with prosecution in Russia for opposing the war and is currently in Europe.
While he thought a visa ban was unlikely to pass, he said issues with opening bank accounts in Europe had made it difficult for dissidents to operate in exile. Instead he would want heightened scrutiny to weed out Russians with pro-war views. “And as to the idea that if Russians can’t leave the country, they’ll rise up and overthrow the regime, it’s a total lie ... The experience of the Soviet Union shows that closing borders doesn’t lead to overthrow of the regime. I understand the anger of the moment, but I think in the long term it is dangerous.”
Many Russians approached by the Observer agreed that ordinary tourism had become a clear flashpoint as the country engages in a brutal war against its neighbour.
“I believe if you leave Russia you have to be actively against the war,” said Ira Lobanovskaya, who started a Relocation Guide from the Russian Federation chat on Telegram to advise people on leaving the country. “You can’t be outside of politics any more: that is barbaric in the current climate. We stress this when helping people relocate ... I understand that the west doesn’t want Russians partying on the streets of Europe.”
But keeping Russians in Russia would be counterproductive, she said. About half of the 40,000-plus people her organisation has advised want to speak out or attend anti-government marches, she added. “They need to unite abroad, form anti-war alliances and speak out. You can’t just topple a nuclear power like Russia right now from the inside. It is just unrealistic.”
However, Ilya Ponomarev, a former Duma deputy who has lived in exile in Ukraine since 2016, is in favour of a ban. He said Russians capable of doing so should stay in Russia to fight the regime,it was not productive for people to simply go to jail, “leaving the country should be the last resort”.
“You cannot abstain from this war,” he said in an interview in Ukraine. “If you want to abstain, don’t complain that you are being kicked out of Europe.” He said he believed 98% of people leaving the country were not in danger but left “just because it’s uncomfortable for them [in Russia]”.
He went on: “I very much agree with the Estonian leader when she said that being in Europe is not a human right; it is a privilege. If you want this privilege, do something in Russia first, earn this privilege, make some bold move, and then leave. And we shouldn’t restrict these kinds of people from leaving.”
In an online address this weekend Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his call to limit Schengen visas for Russians, saying there “should be guarantees that Russian murderers and the accomplices of state terror do not make use of the Schengen visas”.
But he also called for support for Russians “who indeed need help”. “There are well-known legal mechanisms, through refugee status, asylum requests, and other ways to receive support.”
Russian activists say tourist visas are an important tool for many trying to leave Russia, especially when they flee over land borders because flying out of the country is too costly or too dangerous.
“This is a safety mechanism for thousands of Russians who already or may in future suffer from repressions,” said Anton Barbashin of news website Riddle Russia, who is currently in Europe. “A visa ban will limit opportunities critics of the regime have for getting to safety when they need to.”
Countries such as Latvia, Estonia and Finland have seen an influx of both Russian tourists and émigrés since the beginning of the war, and have begun independently tightening immigration rules and enforcing limited visa bans. Other informal proposals aimed at limiting Russian tourism during the war include requiring Russians to sign a statement condemning the invasion when they enter Europe. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul suggests that Russian visitors be required to pay a tax of around €100 toward Ukraine’s reconstruction.
“For those countries reluctant to ban all Russians from visiting their countries, the idea of charging an extra fee for the visa that would then go to Ukrainian reconstruction offers an alternative response,” he said. “Doing nothing – just maintaining the status quo – should not be an option.”
He argued that would avoid the blanket restrictions that could punish Russians who have opposed the war and help spark a brain drain in Russia.
“As to the dilemma of Russians being accused of funding the Ukrainian government reconstruction, well that’s their choice, No one is forcing them to travel to democratic Europe! They can vacation in the European country of Belarus instead.”
Wealthy Russians would probably find a way around any ban, said the British passport-holding son of a Russian businessman. He has been in Saint-Tropez this summer and there were “as many Russians as usual”.
“The elite will always find a way to get to Europe,” he said. “Many of my generation went to school here. We have lived long enough in the west to receive residency permits or a second passport. Those who don’t are talking about getting Turkish papers if Europe goes through with this. There will always be loopholes for those with money.”