The recent suspension of the EU’s visa deal with Moscow aims to prevent Russian tourists from entering European countries, showing a Western pattern to punish ordinary citizens.
Russia’s Ukraine offensive has escalated tensions between Moscow and the West, deepened political faultlines and exacerbated a global economic downturn.
The conflict has also profoundly changed ordinary people’s lives from Ukraine to Russia as many Ukrainians become refugees fleeing Moscow’s offensive. But the bloody fighting has also altered the lives of ordinary Russian citizens, who have faced many restrictions due to sweeping Western sanctions on Moscow.
On Wednesday, under growing pressure from Russia’s European neighbours—from Poland to Finland and Baltic states, who were once part of the Soviet Union—the EU announced that the bloc is suspending a visa deal with Moscow to decrease the flow of Russian tourists to European states.
The decision—which “will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued [to Russians] by the member states”, according to Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat—amounts to directly targeting ordinary citizens by one of the world’s largest democratic political blocs, something which might also be considered as a measure of human rights violations.
“It is going to be more difficult, and it is going to take longer,” Borrell said, referring to Russian applicants of EU visas, sounding like a punishing teacher speaking with his unruly students.
“I think that this is a deeply short-sighted and desperate act by the EU that shall be counter-productive,” says Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, describing the EU’s decision as an “ill-advised form” of “collective punishment”.
Simons predicts that the EU’s punishment of ordinary Russians will push them more towards Moscow's narrative on the Ukraine conflict than the Western accounts of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive posture against Kiev.
“It shall not affect the key decision makers in Russia and likely isolate even further the public that is likely to shift them ever closer to the government,” the professor tells TRT World.
Russians responded to the EU decision angrily. “There’s nothing good about this. Their people will also have to deal with inconveniences when they come here. This is yet another spiral of this irrational Russophobian attitude towards our country,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, signalling that Moscow might retaliate to Brussels in kind.
Some US officials also appeared to dislike the EU decision. “We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a US National Security Council spokesperson told the Financial Times (FT).
While the decision is not surprising to many analysts, including Simons, given the fact that tensions in the Ukraine conflict continues to escalate with Kiev’s ongoing southern offensive, the European bloc’s suspension of the visa deal with Russia might also cast “doubts on the EU as a reliable counterpart for any possible future agreements”, says Simons.
Russia’s western neighbours, some of which were under Moscow’s rule in different periods in history, are the driving forces behind the EU’s recent visa suspension. EU states from Poland to Finland and Baltic states have long lobbied inside Brussels to bring a complete ban on the entrance of Russian citizens to their countries.
On the other hand, Germany and France, the EU’s two heavyweights, expressed their opposition against “far-reaching restrictions” on Russian citizens, which might end up “feeding the Russian narrative and trigger unintended rallying-around the flag effects and/or estranging future generations”, according to a joint memo from both states.
As opposed to hardline stances from Russia’s European neighbouring states, the two big sayers of the EU, offered the union to “closely scrutinise visa applications lodged by Russian nationals for potential security risks”.
While countries like Hungary, which has close connections with the leadership in Moscow, opposed the EU’s visa suspension decision, other states like Poland and Estonia even called for tougher measures like a national visa ban on Russian citizens, showing various divisions in the bloc.
“Until we have reached an agreement on how to restrict the entry of Russian nationals to the European Union, Estonia and other countries that share a border with Russia and Belarus will consider a national visa ban or restricting border crossings for Russian nationals with EU visas,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, according to a statement released on the foreign ministry’s website.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have had sizable Russian minorities due to the fact that they were part of the Soviet Union during which Russian populations from different parts of the communist state moved to their territories.
With the explosion of the Ukraine conflict, more Russians, which are as many as 700,000, arrived in the Baltic and other EU states, increasing concerns across the continent.
“At the informal meeting, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland issued a joint statement on the substantial increase in Russian citizens entering the European Union and the Schengen area and the security threat it poses,” said the Estonian statement.
But the EU visa decision against Russian citizens might also prevent even dissidents of the Putin government from seeking refuge in European countries.
“We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses,” FT quoted an anonymous US official as saying.
The EU’s visa decision is another link in the chain of events in terms of measures taken against Russians. As part of Western sanctions, many Russian athletes have been banned from international competitions.
The Western ban has even reached people like Elena Rybakina, a tennis player, who won the Wimbledon tournament in July under the Kazakh flag. But despite competing under Kazakhstan, a country which has increasing political problems with Moscow, she was punished because she was born in Russia— Rybakina did not receive any ATP ranking point from her Wimbledon win.
"I don't think that it's fair. Of course, we cannot change it. It was a decision (made) before. I'm talking not only about myself, but just generally I think with all the decisions, many players are paying for all these decisions,” she said, referring to her punishment.