Vadim Kobzev thought it would be easy for him to obtain a humanitarian visa to enter Germany.
After all, his decision to flee Russia for Georgia in April, weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was preceded by years of interrogations, threats and police raids targeting his job as regional coordinator. in the southern city of Rostov. -on-Don for Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and Kremlin gadfly who is now Russia’s most notorious political prisoner.
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So Kobzev, 25, was surprised when the German embassy in Tbilisi rejected his visa application, telling him Georgia was a “safe country” for Russians.
He’s a little stunned by the decision, he said. And he’s a little dismayed by the growing chorus of European lawmakers and policymakers advocating for a visa ban on Russian tourists, as a way to punish Russia for its war on Ukraine.
“I support all adequate measures that will help stop the war. But how will the thousands of imprisoned Russian activists help? he told RFE/RL.
“At the moment, this is one of the few ways for members of the Russian opposition, who face criminal charges in Russia, to escape torture and prison,” he said. he declares.
“Despite this, EU leaders say humanitarian visa procedures are working well. Using my example, you can see that this program does not work.
Kobzev’s case is symptomatic of a wider and heated discussion now ricocheting in many European capitals: should the European Union impose a ban on Russian tourists – or all Russian citizens – in order to pressure the Kremlin and to punish the country for its war against Ukraine.
‘That’s not true’
It is a position avidly defended by non-EU Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for it in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month.
“They must be deprived of the right to cross international borders until they learn to respect them,” Foreign Ministry Dmytro Kuleba said on August 10.
Among EU members, the Baltic States and Finland have answered the call. This is mainly driven by their proximity, which makes them a popular top destination for Russian tourists heading to Europe, especially since major airlines have cut almost all flights to Russia.
Estonian Prime Minister on August 9 called for a ban on tourist visas for the Russians. Latvia has suspended issuing tourist visas to Russians and Finland’s foreign minister announced this week that the country would reduce the number of visas issued by 90%.
“It is not fair that at the same time that Russia is waging an aggressive and brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can lead a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists. It’s not good,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. told public broadcaster Yle News.
Denmark’s foreign minister said he would welcome a joint effort, but also signaled his willingness to go it alone.
“I find it shameful that Russian tourists can sunbathe and live in luxury in southern Europe, while Ukrainian cities are bombed beyond recognition,” said Jeppe Kofod. cited as reported by the Danish news agency Ritzau.
The proposal met with a lukewarm response from larger EU members, notably Germany, which has been reluctant to take more aggressive action against Moscow in response to the invasion of Ukraine. EU foreign ministers plan to discuss the idea at a meeting in Prague later this month.
For many on both sides, much of the debate hinges on whether all Russians share responsibility – and to what extent – for the actions of President Vladimir Putin, the government and the military.
“It’s Putin’s war, so I find it very difficult to accept this idea” that ordinary Russians should be punished with a visa ban, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters in Berlin.
The issue is further complicated by the Schengen system, a multinational visa that allows Russians to visit almost any member of the EU simply by obtaining a single visa from a member.
In Moscow, officials reacted angrily to calls for bans and restrictions on issuing vias in some EU countries.
“In their unkindness, many of these countries are sinking into oblivion. And they come, again, to such statements that literally 80 years ago we heard from central Europe, from some European countries,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. told Russian journalists August 9.
In a post on Telegram on Aug. 18, Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is now a pugnacious public commentator, made veiled threats about shutting off Russian natural gas supplies to Europe.
“Don’t be silent. Call your fools to account. And we will hear you,” Medvedev wrote, attracting Europeans. “The advantages are obvious: in winter, in the company of Russia, it is much warmer and more comfortable than in splendid isolation with the gas stove turned off and the radiator cold.”
The discussion was picked up by the Russian intelligentsia and chatter classes – on Facebook, on VKontakte, on Telegram – by those who have already fled and by those who remain.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a longtime political commentator and analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it was foolish to think that banning ordinary Russians from vacationing in Europe would help undermine Putin’s government.
“The idea that it is possible to turn the Russians against Putin by ‘punishing’ them with a visa ban is unfounded,” he said in a comment published on August 12.
“It would only encourage those who are already not pro-Western or pro-liberal to support Putin more, while those who have a democratic orientation and oppose the regime would find themselves stuck: on the one hand, they are persecuted by Putin’s siloviki while on the other hand they are left to their fate by the West,” he writes. The term “siloviki” refers broadly to senior officials in Russia’s security, military and law enforcement agencies.
An organization called the Russian Anti-War Committee, whose members include some of Russia’s best-known political dissidents and émigrés, has also criticized the ideastating that “calls for a visa ban for all Russian citizens, including those who take a clear anti-war stance and risk a long prison sentence as a result, have sad examples in recent European history and play clearly to the advantage of the Kremlin”.
Sergei Medvedev, a political scientist, a former professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and a regular contributor to RFE/RL’s Russian service, said the Kremlin was already cutting Russia off from Europe and that Russians’ hesitations about the wisdom of a visa ban were misplaced. .
“We are talking about the end of a 30-year era in which Russians felt at home in Europe,” he said in a Facebook post. “Rather than crying over the fate of Russian Europeans and Schengen visas, it is better to contribute like the Lithuanians and buy Bayraktars” – a reference to Turkish drones which have played an important role in strengthening Ukraine’s defense .
For some Russians, complaints about the EU proposals are misguided. Russian anger should be directed directly at the Kremlin, said Alfred Kokh, Russia’s former deputy prime minister in the late 1990s, and, in particular, at Russian intelligence agencies that have been implicated in incidents of sabotage, assassination attempts and hacking. in Europe.
“Europe simply has no other choice” he argued in a Facebook post.
“And if you want to visit Piazza della Signoria in Florence again or visit the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, then you should wish with all your might that the Ukrainian army defeats Putin’s warriors as soon as possible, and that the peace reigns on Ukraine’s soil and it liberates its entire territory from the occupiers,” added Kokh, who lives in Western Europe.
Political scientist Aleksandr Kynev, meanwhile, claimed that a proposed EU visa ban was an election ploy by hardline nationalists ahead of elections in some Baltic states. And he said such a ban would be a boon for the Kremlin, providing it with fodder to make the point to average Russians that they are victimized and threatened by Europe.
“It will have long-term negative geopolitical consequences,” he said in a statement. comment published by the Moscow Times. “In Russia, the feeling of national resentment will increase, the destruction of the pro-European part of society will continue.”
In Riga, the Latvian capital, a Russian-speaking woman told Current Time that she agrees with Ukrainian officials asking the EU to impose a visa ban on Russian citizens.
“Russians need to be isolated so as not to impose their vision on the world,” said the woman, who did not give her name or nationality but said she grew up in Ukraine. “If their world is so good, let them all live in it. No need to scold Europe. Everyone scolds Europe, but everyone wants to study, get treatment, take vacations in Europe.
“There is a collective responsibility here,” she said.
Kobzev, the political activist, said he still hopes for a change in the decision of German embassy officials, but he also welcomes the broader debate over Russian immigration rules.
He cites the historical parallel of Russians fleeing their country in the early 20th century, after the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, such as Nobel Prize-winning author Ivan Bunin or famous classical composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
“These people continued their reality in Europe, made scientific and cultural discoveries,” he told RFE/RL.
Many Russians who fled more recently, he said, continue their political work from abroad.
“They continue to engage in political activities. They participate in anti-war actions, collect humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees and volunteer,” he said.
“They do not pose a threat to EU countries. Most of these people have higher education, are specialists in certain fields, know foreign languages and are bearers of European culture. They can easily fit in and be useful.