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Russian Dissidents Aren’t In France for the Food

Russian Dissidents Aren’t In France for the Food

Monday, 22 August, 2022 - 04:45

“Unbearable.” That’s how a member of Finland’s parliament describes the sight of Russian tourists pouring across the border, stocking up on souvenirs while Vladimir Putin’s army bombs Ukraine.

Worse, the fact that some of the tourists travel on into the European Union’s visa-free Schengen zone seems to undermine a sanctions net that’s closed in on oligarch superyachts, golden passports and flights from Russia. Data from insurer Rosgosstrakh PJSC show EU destinations accounted for 25% of their online travel insurance contracts in June and July, with Spain and Italy in the top three, according to Russian Travel Digest.

National visa curbs are being rolled out in response. But as pressure builds for a pan-EU ban on visas for Russian citizens — backed by the Czech Republic, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency — we should ask how effective or “smart” that penalty would be.

While such a ban would be a gesture of support to vulnerable states on Russia’s doorstep, it risks also lumping together Putin’s friends and enemies — both morally, as a form of collective punishment, and practically, when helping Russian dissidents find safety abroad. The Finnish Schengen route has, for example, been used by anti-war Russian nationals who ended up in France.

Some politicians say this needn’t be a problem: The EU offers “humanitarian” visas for Russians fleeing persecution, meaning only vacationers would be targeted. But if the Schengen route has been key, observers say, it’s precisely because of the vagaries of the asylum process and low number of humanitarian visas handed out. Fleeing exiles will face more closed doors.

None of this disruption is comparable to the plight of Ukrainian refugees and relatives burying their dead, obviously. But it would be a step backward. One recent arrival in France from Moscow, 41-year-old public-health specialist Daniel Kashnitsky, tells me he knows how lucky he is: After spending a night in a Russian jail for protesting against the war, he successfully applied for asylum in April and fled with his family to spare his 18-year-old son from being drafted.

Kashnitsky says he supports any move that could change the course of war, but he thinks a visa ban could backfire. “It plays Putin’s game,” he says, fearing returning exiles or dissidents blocked from the EU would be used as propaganda. “We are on the same side, and we need to unite.”

The West could, in fact, view the diaspora as a resource to be cultivated. While advocates of a ban would say most Russians are not on the same side at all, with approval of the war running at a reported 77%, think-tank CEPA reckons core support for the war likely overlaps heavily with the 76% of Russians who have never been abroad. They would be unaffected and unmoved by a visa ban, unlike high-skilled professionals who advocate emigration as a way to deplete Putin’s state. The U.S. aspires to attract them by waiving some visa requirements (as it did in the Cold War).

Tapping into the Putin brain drain could uphold democratic values by giving asylum to victims of persecution and also bring the economic benefits of skilled immigration, says Konstantin Sonin, an economist with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. It would mark a departure from the investor visas and golden passports that have benefited Putin’s closest entourage and fueled understandable outrage.

None of this is to dismiss the security concerns of Central and Eastern European states that have played a huge role in welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees and are directly exposed to Moscow’s threats, such as over goods transiting through the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Estonia has just repulsed the largest wave of cyber attacks in over a decade.

But debates over visas distract from the priority of helping Ukraine by amping up financial assistance for Kyiv, unlocking economic stimulus for households and speeding up vital decisions on extending nuclear plants in Germany and Dutch gas fields. Crippling inflation and energy scarcity are the real threat to the war effort; talk of isolating Russia with a travel ban jars with the 83.3 billion euros ($83.8 billion) the EU has sent Russia for fossil fuels since the invasion. This, more than busloads of tourists, may be the most unbearable contradiction of all.


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