Finland will slash the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent from September 1, foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said on Tuesday, amid a rush of Russian tourists bound for Europe.
"Tourist visas will not stop completely, but their number will be significantly reduced," said Haavisto. He said the decision had come after an influx of Russian tourists started using Finland and its Helsinki-Vantaa airport as a gateway towards European holiday destinations, after Russia lifted pandemic-related border restrictions a month ago.
"And this maybe is not very appropriate if we, for example, think of the airspace restrictions put in place for Russia," Haavisto said.
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Just days after Russia started its attack on Ukraine – which Moscow describes as a "special military operation" – in February, Finland joined a string of Western countries in closing their airspace to Russian planes, making it difficult for Russians to travel to Europe.
Currently, Finland processes around 1,000 Russian visa applications a day, Haavisto said. Since Russia lifted its COVID-19 travel restrictions on July 15, the number of Russian tourists heading to Finland has steadily increased, spurring discontent.
While the numbers are still well below pre-pandemic levels, there were more than 230,000 border crossings in July – up from the 125,000 in June.
Restricting tourist visas
Haavisto said tourist visas from Russia will be limited by restricting the allotted opening hours for tourism visa applications, as an outright ban based on nationality is not possible.
"This means that other types of visas – visits to relatives, family contacts, work, study – will be given preference and more time," the minister explained.
Finland and the Baltics would together propose that the European Union (EU) discontinues a visa facilitation agreement with the Russian federation that makes it easier for Russians to travel to and within the bloc, Haavisto said.
Some EU leaders, such as Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her Estonian counterpart Kaja Kallas, have called for an EU-wide visa ban, which German Chancellor Olaf Scholz contested on Monday, saying Russians should be able to flee their home country if they disagree with the regime.
"It's not right that Russian citizens can enter Europe, the Schengen area, be tourists... while Russia is killing people in Ukraine. It's wrong," Marin said on Monday.
National humanitarian visa
Finland was looking into creating a national humanitarian visa, which could be granted to Russians that needed to flee or visit Europe for purposes such as journalism or advocacy, Haavisto added.
"This could make the situation in certain circumstances much easier for journalists or NGO workers," Haavisto said.
According to EU rules, a tourist must apply for a visa from the country they intend to visit but can enter the border-check-free Schengen area from any point and travel around it for up to 90 days in a 180-day period.
Finland has imposed the same sanctions on Moscow as the rest of the EU, such as forbidding the import and export of some industrial goods and freezing some assets in EU banks.