Russians scramble for visas as EU considers travel restrictions

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Russians are racing to try to get EU visas as some countries impose travel restrictions and fears are growing that the European Union could ban Russian tourists from the bloc in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The number of applications for Schengen visas – which give access to most EU countries – submitted by Russians has increased rapidly in recent weeks, according to travel agencies contacted by The Moscow Times.

“I don’t believe the EU will stop issuing all visas to Russians. However, I will feel more comfortable with a Schengen visa, even though I’m not going anywhere right now,” said a Moscow resident who applied for an EU visa after talks about the ban began.

The idea of ​​a European ban on Russian tourists has caused heated debate since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky backed it earlier this month, with supporters saying that the Russians must be held accountable for the actions of their government and opponents question the validity of policy-making based on the idea of ​​collective responsibility.

Finland said On Tuesday, he will reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90% from next month and Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia also recently announced restrictions on tourist visas for Russians.

The three Baltic states and Finland, which share land borders with Russia, have reported an increase in the number of Russians using their airports to transit further into the EU as a workaround to the bloc’s ban on airlines Russian airlines.

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said last week that he supported the idea of ​​a European ban on tourist visas for Russians.

“My close friends now live in Europe and they cannot return to Russia for various reasons, including political ones. I want to visit them soon,” the Moscow resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told the Moscow Times.

Photobank Moscow-Live / flickr

She said she paid a travel agency about 25,000 rubles ($409) for her Schengen visa application and expected to collect the visa later on Monday.

Concerns over possible EU restrictions mean the number of Schengen visa applications from Russians has doubled in the past two weeks, Maya Lomidze, head of the Russian Association of Tour Operators, told the Moscow Times. .

Tatiana, a Russian citizen who moved to the EU several years ago, said she asked her family members in Russia to apply for Schengen visas as soon as the travel ban discussion began.

“This situation looks very scary – I live in Europe and my relatives live in Russia. What if the borders are closed and my mother can’t visit me? Tatiana, who declined to give her last name, told the Moscow Times.

Russian travel agency Aero Club Tour, which helps customers obtain foreign visas, has seen an increase in Schengen visa applications since June, according to Alina Protsenko, head of the company’s visa assistance department.

Even without an outright ban, the EU visa application process is already more complicated for Russians than it was before the war in Ukraine, experts say.

“The main problem is finding a slot for a visa appointment at the embassy,” Protsenko told the Moscow Times, adding that the longer than normal wait times were a result of tit-for-tat . diplomatic expulsions which left European embassies in Russia short-staffed.

But the application process has also apparently been tightened.

“Documents, flight tickets and booking confirmations are subject to further scrutiny and in some cases a visa application may be refused,” Protsenko said.

In addition, a number of countries, including Switzerland, Hungary and Austria, have apparently started issuing Schengen visas only for the duration of a trip.

“Unfortunately the times when we could apply for a three day trip [to Europe] and an embassy gave a Schengen visa for three or five years have passed,” Protsenko said.

Russians – around 40 million of whom have foreign passports – have been Published about 4 million Schengen visas in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic, according to EU data.

Advocating for Europe to block Russian entry, Zelensky said in a interview earlier this month that Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy.”

But critics of a visa ban warn it would hurt many Russians who oppose the war, including opposition activists and journalists who have been forced to flee by draconian censorship laws and out of fear of political persecution.

Last week, Russian journalist Yaroslav Varenik said he was refused entry to Estonia and border guards canceled his tourist visa after a two-hour interrogation.

For now, Russians can still enter Europe if they have a Schengen visa, since a Schengen visa issued by any country allows access to the entire bloc.

An EU-wide tourist visa ban for Russian citizens should be discussed at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers later this month.

“I don’t think he [a visa ban] will happen,” said Tatiana, the Russian citizen living in the EU. “But I fear that an entire nation can be blamed for what their government is doing.”

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