Finland intends to limit visas for Russian tourists

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told Euronews that the government had approved plans to start limiting the number of visas issued to Russians.

The Finnish government has come under increased public and political pressure over the past ten days to close a perceived ‘loophole’ under the sanctions, which allows tens of thousands of Russians to travel to the EU by car or bus via Finnish borders – even though the sanctions prohibit Russians to fly or take the train to the European Union union

Haavisto says ministers gave the green light on Thursday to a scheme that would limit the number of appointments available to Russians at Finnish diplomatic missions in Russia, which has the effect of reducing the number of visas eventually issued.

This is a bureaucratic short-term solution to a problem that Finns hope the EU will solve for them when next meeting of foreign ministers in the Czech Republic at the end of August.

“We are certainly not the only country that has a problem with this issue,” Haavisto said.

“And if we reduce the number of Schengen visas we issue, we should have a more coordinated European approach,” he added.

Finns have 12 different categories of visas they can issue – including for students, workers, family members and tourism – and Haavisto said the easiest and most legal way to reduce the number of tourist visas is to “prioritize time slots for other types of visas and give slightly fewer numbers to tourist visas.”

Ground wave of support to prevent Russian tourists from violating sanctions

On a more local level, Finns are showing their disgust at the flow of Russian tourists crossing the border since mid-July, when Moscow dropped the latest COVID-related border restrictions.

A group of young politicians paid for a huge billboard next to the border post with Russia saying: “While you are on vacation, Ukrainians have no home to return to”; while the southeastern town of Lappeenranta, where most Russian day trippers stop for shopping, play the Ukrainian national anthem every day in August and raise Ukrainian flags at the port of entry into Finland and in shopping malls.

Finnish retailers were reminded not to sell luxury goods to Russian tourists, which would constitute a sanctions violation; and Finnish customs officers confiscated certain luxury items and “goods that can contribute to Russia’s industrial and military capabilities, such as navigational aids” in a series of heightened checks and searches of Russian tourists crossing the border.

During this time a citizens’ initiative calling for a ban on new visas for Russians and the cancellation of existing visas, has garnered more than 7,000 signatures since its launch in late July. The petition is expected to collect 50,000 signatures within six months to be considered by parliamentary committees.

“It is important to remember that the biggest issuers of Schengen visas for Russians are Greece, Italy and Spain,” Foreign Minister Haavisto, a veteran Green Party politician, told Euronews during of a telephone interview from Helsinki.

“And when there are visas issued by these countries, we cannot stop people at our borders, because Schengen guarantees non-discrimination based on nationality,” he noted.

Finns also want to be very careful not to prevent people from crossing the border for family reunification reasons – much of eastern Russia was part of Finland until it was ceded to the Russians in repair after the Second World War, and there are deep and lasting problems of cross-border family ties.

There is also a estimated 84,000 native Russian speakers who live in Finland, many with Finnish partners and extended families. Haavisto says that 30% of people crossing the Russian border are actually Finns.

“For us it is important that we have a peaceful border, and that people who have to cross it can cross it. But we don’t want to become a gateway to Helsinki airport which the Russians are starting to use as a point of transit,” he said. Euro news.

“This does not just require a Finnish decision, but a wider Schengen decision.”