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

Bordertown

Finlandization 3.0, apparently, involves joining NATO to keep the Russian imperialists at bay while simultaneously issuing as many Schengen visas as possible to Russian shopping tourists, who are totally clueless, of course, as they make their triumphant return to the hypermarkets of Lappeenranta, the setting of the hit Nordic noir series Bordertown. Its on-the-spectrum protagonist can barely keep his head above the bloodbath routinely unleashed in the town, which in real life is utterly peaceful and lovely. What is not lovely is the utter cynicism of Lappeenranta’s political and commercial elite, who are, strangely, much more like their fictional counterparts than the real town is like its lush but murderous onscreen double. ||| TRR


Russian shopping tourists are now coming by the busload to a border town in Finland, waiting weeks to make the trip: “It’s about time”

The effects of the border’s [re]opening are already visible in Lappeenranta. The number of Russians is nowhere near the record years, but they seem to have purchasing power.

Russian shopping tourists returned to Lappeenranta shops.

A Sovavto bus from Russia turns in front of the Lappeenranta bus station.

There’s a full load of people exiting the vehicle. One of them is Andrei Kolomytsev of Petersburg. For him, a trip to Finland is a dream come true after a long wait.

“Two and a half years of waiting. It’s about time, ” he sighs.

Last Friday, Russia lifted travel restrictions that it had imposed in response to the coronavirus outbreak last Friday.

Kolomytsev had been one of the first to arrive in Finland in his own car. However, his trip was halted at the Russian border in the morning, because Russia unexpectedly opened the border only at 1 p.m. Kolomytsev had already turned around and headed back home.

Now he’s happy to step off the bus.

“I’ll go to a cafe, and buy cheese and other high-quality food. I’ll have a look around after a long time,” Kolomytsev outlines his plans.

Andrei Kolomytsev is pleased to finally be in Finland. Photo: Kalle Purhonen/Yle

He also plans to visit a local car dealership specializing in Volvos to ask about maintenance prices. This is because it is now difficult to get car spare parts in Russia due to Western sanctions. As a result, car maintenance has also become more expensive.

Buses full
Buses to Finland from Petersburg are now fully booked. For example, the Ecolines booking portal has no tickets available from Petersburg to Lappeenranta until August 16.

Another bus company, Sovavto, has no seats available until July 26.

The return of Russian shopping tourists to the shops is already visible in Lappeenranta. There are clearly more Russian cars with long plates on the streets and in parking lots.

The number of Russian customers has also increased, for example, at Lappeenranta’s branches of [Finnish hypermarket chains] Citymarket and Prisma.

“The number of Russians has increased since Friday. While it used to be a matter of lone customers, now we are talking about numbers in the dozens,” says Antti Punkkinen, Prisma’s director in Lappeenranta.

According to Antti Punkkinen, Prisma’s Lappeenranta director, the number of Russian shopping tourists has increased. Photo: Kalle Purhonen/Yle

Ari Piiroinen, the storekeeper at Lappeenranta’s Citymarket, has a similar message.

“The number of Russians has increased steadily since the weekend, ” he says.

But there is still a long way to go to return to the state of affairs before the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is absolutely not possible to talk about numbers like they were in 2019 or earlier,” Punkkinen says.

He stresses that it has only been a few days since the border opened, so it is still too early to draw conclusions about the future number of Russians.

The arrival of Russians is limited by, among other things, the number of valid visas. Russian media have reported long waits for visas in Petersburg, for example.

They’re not visible everywhere
However, the increase in Russian shopping tourists is not visible everywhere in Lappeenranta.

For example, the opening of the border has not been felt in terms of shoppers at the IsoKristiina shopping center in the downtown.

“I haven’t noticed any significant change. The number of shoppers is about the same,” says Matti Sinkko, IsoKristiina’s manager.

They’re buying what they used to, and they seem to have money
According Antti Punkkinen at Prisma, the contents of the Russian shopping basket appear to have remained more or less unchanged.

“They’re mainly buying foods: cheese, coffee, and baby foods, as well as certain detergents. As far as home and speciality goods are concerned, Russians have been interested in clothes during these few days,” Punkkinen says.

The contents of the shopping bags of Vladimir Vapilov of Petersburg, strolling the aisles at Prisma, seem to bear out Punkkinen’s words.

“I bought jeans and sneakers and cheese and chocolate,” he says.

According to Punkkinen, the Russians also seem to have enough money.

“The Russians seem ready to buy,” he says.

Source: Kalle Schönberg, Yle, 21 July 2022. Thanks to Tiina Pasanen for the link. Translated, from the Finnish, by the Russian Reader, who wonders why the residents of Bordertown were not out in droves picketing Russian shoppers.

Tervetuloa Suomeen!

Petersburg residents grabbed up all the appointments in July to apply for a Schengen visa at the Finnish visa center in the city after it was reported that all restrictions on crossing the border would be lifted.

Finland lifted all anti-covid restrictions on entering the country on June 30, and visa restrictions were lifted on July 1. The scheduling of appointments for processing visa applications was opened a month in advance, and in four days Petersburgers booked all the slots for dates up to and including July 29, writes Petersburg Patrol, citing a source in the visa center.

The source at the visa center could not rule out that “the management [would] add additional slots.” Usually, appointments to apply for visas were scheduled a week in advance.

Before the hype, Petersburgers who previously held two-year Schengen visas were issued them again without any problems.

The Finnish Interior Ministry conjectured that the lifting of restrictions would increase traffic from non-EU countries, in particular, on its eastern border, while the desire of Russians to visit Finland and the number of valid visas issued to Russian nationals would affect the volume of traffic.

Tour operators believe otherwise: the flow of tourists from the Russian Federation will be affected by difficulties with obtaining visas and exchanging currency. Aleksan Mkrtchyan, vice-president of the Alliance of Travel Agencies, noted that the opening of the land border is “certainly a good thing,” from which Finland and residents of Petersburg and the Leningrad Region would benefit. However, it would be Russians who already hold a valid Schengen visa who would be the first to go to Finland, he said.

“It is almost impossible to get a Finnish visa in the near future—[appointments at the visa center] are booked out almost till the end of August,” Mkrtchyan told Interfax.

Petersburgers will be able to travel in large numbers to Finland from July 15—the day on which Russia removes all restrictions on crossing the border, which were introduced in March 2020 due to Covid-19. Upon returning to the country from abroad, Russians will still have to take a PCR test.

In Finland, citizens of non-EU countries have not been required to have a vaccination certificate or a coronavirus test since July 1. Coronavirus testing will also no longer be carried out at border crossings.

Source: Delovoi Peterburg, 5 July 2022. Still from Veep courtesy of US News. Translated by the Russian Reader


The city of Lappeenranta would be prepared, if necessary, to offer its airport as a NATO base: “It will certainly be available if the Defense Forces so wish”

Lappeenranta has not discussed with the Finnish Defense Forces what investments would be involved in possible NATO membership, but in theory the city would welcome them.

A Ryanair jet plane on the tarmac at Lappeenranta Airport, 2 August 2019. Photo by the Russian Reader

The city of Lappeenranta aims to get the maximum benefit if Finland joins NATO.

Political decision-makers and officials in Lappeenranta have expressed the hope that, with membership, even a NATO base could be established in Lappeenranta.

According to Lappeenranta’s city manager, Kimmo Jarva, the idea has come about at a time when the debate on joining NATO has been lively, and because South Karelia is located on the frontier between Europe and Russia.

There has been no discussion of the matter in defense policy circles, nor has there been any discussion with the Defense Forces. However, the city of Lappeenranta hopes that the Defense Forces will make investments in South Karelia due to NATO membership.

“I’ve heard conjectures about the airport, among other things. I’m sure it’s available if the military would like it. As for whether there will be any changes in the locations of the Army Academy and the Defense Forces, I cannot say as I’m a layman,” Jarva says.

According to Jarva, the progress of Finland’s NATO membership bid has given hope to the whole of South Karelia. It brings a sense of security and confidence to companies, for example.

“Companies, for example, believe this is a stable environment. This has been the case all along, but it brings a sense of security and can encourage investments in the region,” Jarva says.

He believes the war will eventually end and ordinary people will again travel across the eastern border.

“NATO membership does not preclude the movement of ordinary people, after things are sorted out first,” Jarva hopes.

Source: Tanja Hannus, Yle Uutiset, 30 June 2022. Translated, from the Finnish, by the Russian Reader

“We Have to Cut the Strings”

“They built a wall!” The shore of the Vuoksi River in Imatra in more peaceful times. Archive photo by the Russian Reader

I love Imatra and Lappeenranta and South Karelia (Finland) more than any place on earth. Stupidly, perhaps, I regret that I wasn’t born there. Less stupidly, I am sad that I haven’t been there for two and a half years. BBC Newsnight went there this past week to talk with the locals about what they think about suddenly finding themselves across the border from a warring country and whether they think their heretofore proudly neutral Suomi should join NATO. Thanks to Riittaa Mustonen for the link.

Ironically, the reporter who did this story is named Sima. ||| TRR

If Finland joins Nato, its 1,300km border with Russia will become Nato’s eastern front. There is a troubled history of war between the two countries, but how do people living on this potential new frontier feel, and what’s been the impact of Putin’s aggression on previously close relationships between Finns and Russians who live here? In South Karelia, officials say the absence of Russian tourists crossing to Finland is costing the region €1m a day. Newsnight’s Sima Kotecha reports from the border town of Imatra and the region’s biggest city Lappeenranta where there are more than 2,000 Russian speakers.

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