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Finland bans fast-track tourist visas for Russians

Finland got permission from EU leaders to curb visas for Russian travelers, who have used the country as a transit point to access the rest of Europe since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

HELSINKI, Finland (CN) — The ministers of foreign affairs for the European Union's 27 member states met in the Czech Republic this week, where the agenda included a request from Finland to stop the influx of Russians crossing its borders.

In July alone, there were 236,000 crossings at the Finnish-Russian border, of which Russian travelers accounted for the vast majority.

Since Finland lifted its last Covid-19 restrictions in May, many Russians have reached its capital Helsinki to catch a flight to other European destinations. They have done so on a fast-track tourist visa, which takes only a few days to process in local visa centers.

But lately, public and political frustrations with incoming Russians have increased in Finland. In August, the Finnish government announced a plan to cut 90% of all tourist visas.

“It's not right that Russian citizens can enter Europe, the Schengen area, be tourists... while Russia is killing people in Ukraine," Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Aug. 15, just before the announcement. "It is wrong.”

Finland came out of this week’s joint EU meetings with the formal approval of tightening visa regulations for Russians, just like fellow member states Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Latvia have already done. 

Timo Miettinen, an Academy of Finland research fellow at Helsinki University´s Center for European Studies and expert on European politics, explained the new visa ban´s effect and the scope of Russians moving through Finland.

“There are three types of visas that Russians can apply for to pass the border. The first is a short-term transit visa that mostly applies to airplane travel. The second is the tourist visa allowing up to 180 days in Finland and the EU. And the third one is a long-term visa given to mainly students and workers,” he said in an interview with Courthouse News.

The trick for the EU and Finland is to implement stronger regulations while at the same time leaving passage open for Russians who flee their country for political reasons – for example, journalists, opponents of the government or people with exposed family members.

Leaving the long-term visa untouched is a way of securing that these politically vulnerable groups can still seek shelter in Finland and the rest of the EU, according to Miettinen.

On the other hand, Russians applying for tourist visas now must wait a lot longer and go through the formal application process with the embassy - a far more complicated and sensitive process, given the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Finland has a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) border with Russia, and there are several entry points by car, train or bus. The short-term visa agreement was established in 2007, allowing Russians to transit more freely.

But Miettinen said it is noticeable how the current spike in Russians entering Finland has caused strong national sentiments regarding the visa system.

“People started questioning why Russians are allowed to travel freely as tourists, at the same time as they are waging war. The pressure to act initially came from the political opposition, not least because Estonia and Latvia banned visas a while ago,” he said.

However, he added that the Schengen rules – which mandate open borders between European countries – make it difficult to judge whether a visa ban is legally sound.

“Finland did not go straight for a full ban on all tourist visas because it is unclear whether Schengen rules would allow it. For example, one clause says you cannot discriminate based on ethnicity or citizenship. Another clause allows targeting applications from individual countries if severe security issues are at play,” Miettinen said.

The Schengen area is a passport-free zone encompassing 22 EU member states in addition to Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, and Lichtenstein. It is the foundation for free and easy movement within European.

Miettinen noted that EU member states have taken different stances on the question of a Russian visa ban.

“Eastern European countries – except Hungary – and for example, the Netherlands, have generally supported shutting the border completely, while France and Germany were against it. The latter emphasized concern of shutting exit points for opposition dissidents. So, the outcome is indeed a compromise,” he said.

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