Roman Holiday

A still from the motion picture Roman Holiday (1953). Courtesy of Republic

The debate about whether Schengen visas should cease to be issued to Russian nationals has tilted in a completely wrongheaded direction. In fact, it should not focus on the right of Russian nationals to visit European countries, including as tourists, but on Europe’s right to protect itself and to take measures that establish a direct political and legal link between citizens and the actions of their state. No one can or should deprive refugees or persons who are persecuted for their anti-war stance of the right to request asylum in EU countries. But this right should not be confused with the right to tourism, recreation, use of property or trouble-free business dealings in Europe.

What arguments are made by those who think that European countries cannot and do not have the right to stop issuing certain types of visas to Russian nationals?

Argument No. 1. The Russian intelligentsia argues that Europe, as an axiological benchmark for educated and non-war-supporting Russian nationals, has no right to close its borders to such nationals. This argument is based on a double omission.

Omission No. 1. It is not a matter of defending the right of all Russian nationals to vacation in Europe or find refuge there, but of the rights of only those Russian nationals who have linked their lives to Europe as an axiological (or consumerist) beacon. Everyone else, they imply, can do without visas — meaning it is a matter of triage, not a matter of rights or their lack. But this kind of sorting is a blatant injustice vis-a-vis one’s fellow citizens. Why should Russian nationals who know who Caravaggio and Ibsen are have visas, while those who don’t know who they are do without them?

Omission No. 2. Europe as a political entity is supposed to have a moral obligation toward certain nationals of a state that for six months now has been bombing European cities, from Lviv and Vinnytsia to Mykolaiv and Odesa, without cause and without declaring war. Europe has no such moral obligation.

Europe has a political obligation to protect its nationals from the belligerent state and its “soft” power. It also has a moral obligation to take all necessary, sufficient or at least potentially effective measures to protect the European state that has been subjected to the aggression — meaning Ukraine (which is European, so far, only in a geographical, not legal sense). In this case, everything has been working as it should. The EU has welcomed several million refugees from Ukraine and granted them legal status.

Argument No. 2. A crackdown has begun in Russia: opponents of the war, cultural figures, academics, and artists have been persecuted for their stance. If European visa are canceled, these people will not be able to escape. An analogy is immediately drawn with the philosopher Walter Benjamin, whom the Spanish border service did not let into the country from occupied France during the Second World War. Benjamin committed suicide.

Although this analogy is flattering to those who make it, it has nothing to do with real life. There are at least four countries where it is possible to evacuate from Russia quickly, cheaply, and nearly risk-free: Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. There are flights there from Russia, the Russian language is in widespread use there, and no visas are required to stay there. Moreover, you can enter Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan without your foreign travel passport.

So it’s not that there is nowhere to run, but that people want to escape “poshly.” They want to escape to Europe. This raises another objection. Fleeing to the EU on a tourist visa not only means slyly embellishing the hopelessness of the situation, but also engaging in deception. Either you choose Kant’s Europe and apply for refugee status and prove the right to be called a refugee, as the President of Ukraine has advised Russian nationals to do. Or you don’t bother with Europe at all if you want to go to there because you want to live according to Kant, but think you can cheat a little to get there.

Argument No. 3 against visa restrictions is that the European countries, by introducing such restrictions, will punish the innocent and encourage those who are not involved. That is, they will consolidate the majority supporting the war and make life difficult for those who do not support the war and just want to travel to Europe. This argument is based on the false and harmful premise that for some unknown reason the EU countries should play a part in Russia’s internal politics as an insider.

For thirty years, Europe invested a great deal of effort and resources in developing civil society in Russia, in supporting education, science, and culture in the country. These investments all went up in smoke on February 24. They proved completely and absolutely unproductive from a political point of view. Despite the possibly credible opinion that popular support for the war is imaginary, and Russian society is actually opposed to it, it is impossible to understand whether this is true or not. How can one continue investing in something that either exists or does not exist, but should exist?

Argument No. 4 is even simpler: Russian nationals have the right to travel to Europe. Period. It is an inalienable human right. This is simply not the case. If we take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a standard, it states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” “[e]veryone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” and “[e]veryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Neither the spirit nor the letter of a ban by European countries on issuing tourist visas to Russian nationals will violate these three principles governing freedom of movement as a basic human right.

Argument No. 5 is made in desperation and looks completely ridiculous: defamation. First-rate countries versus second-rate countries. These can versus those cannot. I needn’t remind readers about refugees from Syria, that the EU continues to issue visas to people in countries whose standard of living is much lower than in Russia, and so on. It’s not a question of “quality.” The fact is that every day on the social networks I personally see wholly content Russian nationals (including those who support the war, work for the Kremlin, and get paid for producing propaganda and maintaining the infrastructure that simulates “popular” support for the war inside the country) roaming peaceful European landscapes. Every single day.

The war in Ukraine is not a dictator’s safari. It is a terminal event for Russian statehood. Meaning that it is a terminal event for Russian nationals, too. Europe would be in its rights to underscore this fact by taking a simple decision. Peaceful tourism for nationals of a belligerent country is a political oxymoron. Therefore, and for this reason alone, such tourism should be halted at least for the duration of the war.

Source: Konstantin Gaaze, “No, Europe doesn’t owe us anything: In defense of visa restrictions for Russian nationals,” Republic, 18 August 2022. Konstantin Gaaze is a sociologist and journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader

One thought on “Roman Holiday

  1. Obviously I completely disagree with Gaaze, but in any case it was pointed out that he can only safely make this argument thanks to the fact that he benefits from a second passport. As EU countries are not in a state of war with Russia, the premise of banning visa applications makes no sense…. or at least has no precedent. As I wrote elsewhere, by all means, the EU could up the ante, but the fact that it hasn’t makes this look like cynical distraction from actually putting resources into tackling precisely the people who should be prevented from travelling to the EU and whom Gaaze mentions in point 5.

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