Finland is debating whether to stop issuing tourist visas to regular Russian citizens, a move that would bring it into line with its Baltic neighbours but has already prompted Moscow to threaten a “very negative reaction”.
Russians have long crossed their country’s 830-mile border with Finland to holiday, shop in border stores and travel onwards to other European destinations – and Helsinki remains the only EU member to routinely grant tourist visas.
But Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and Finland’s subsequent application to join the Nato defensive alliance have led many Finns to question whether the practice can any longer be justified, while others say a blanket ban would be unfair – and costly.
“It can’t be possible that Finland is allowing Russian tourists to take their holidays and spend their money here while Russia is destroying Ukraine and killing its citizens indiscriminately,” the tabloid Iltalehti said in an editorial.
“It’s morally unacceptable … Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are not accepting tourist visa applications. Closing our borders would send a clear message to Russians about the consequences of ignoring war crimes and supporting Russia’s war of aggression.”
The broadsheet Helsingin Sanomat, however, said the issue was “not so clearcut. Restrictions must be in line with our own values and goals. Sanctions should not be imposed on the basis of nationality, but according to a person’s actions or inaction.”
Russia lifted Covid travel restrictions in mid-July, leading to a sharp rise in tourist numbers. Travel firms in St Petersburg are again offering coach trips, and more Russians are travelling to southern European resorts through Finnish airports to evade the EU’s ban on Russian flights through its airspace.
According to the Finnish foreign ministry, 10,520 new tourist visas were issued to Russian nationals in the first three weeks of July alone. A cross-party majority in Finland’s parliament, however, has voiced strong support for tighter restrictions.
The acting prime minister, Aki Lindén, of the ruling Social Democrats, said on Tuesday he was “personally of the opinion it needs to be stricter”, although the high number of existing visas – about 100,000, many valid for up to five years – complicated the issue. No decision would be made until ministers returned from summer holiday, he said.
An MP from the opposition conservative National Coalition party, Jukka Kopra, told Agence France-Presse the situation was “unbearable … Ukraine’s citizens are being killed, civilians, women and children, and Russians are spending holidays in the EU”.
Other Schengen zone countries that share a border with Russia such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have already restricted Russian visas. Estonia’s interior minister, Lauri Läänemets, said this week an EU-wide solution was needed.
Current rules did not allow Estonia to deny entry to people granted a visa by another Schengen zone state, Läänemets said. While Estonia itself is issuing visas to Russians only in exceptional circumstances, he said, “Russians holding other countries’ visas are increasingly coming to Estonia and often using it as a transit country”.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday Moscow “would, of course, react very negatively” to any decision by Finland to introduce restrictions on Russian tourists. “All such actions against Russian citizens would require countermeasures and a response – this should be understandable and expected,” Peskov said.
Any border closure to Russian tourists, who before the pandemic were Finland’s largest source of foreign tourism revenue, would deal the country an economic blow, particularly in border towns where a whole industry has grown up to cater to them.
“What do they gain from isolating normal Russian citizens?” Mohamad Darwich of the Laplandia Market supermarket, a few minutes from the border, told AFP. Restrictions would cause “a huge problem for the local people and business,” he said.