Even before the surge of those fleeing after Belarus’ rigged 2020 election, Lithuania had been providing shelter for Russian and Belarusian dissidents, opposition activists, as well as those fleeing from both countries’ overall repression for years.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the number of Russian and Belarusian citizens applying for a Schengen visa on humanitarian grounds increased dramatically. And on March 10, Lithuania adopted the decision to issue visas to the citizens of these two countries only on humanitarian grounds or other reasons seen as international obligations.
It’s a solution that has proven both effective and fair. But still too many European Union member countries remain at odds on the matter — and we must find a joint solution.
Since the decision, Lithuanian authorities have issued no visas for Russian or Belarusian tourists, while continuing to issue them on humanitarian grounds for those under threat, despite limited consular capacities. Still, a few problems remain.
Russian tourists who were denied a visa by authorities in the Baltics may still apply for a visa in any other EU member country. And after succeeding, many of them still travel to the countries closest to the Russian and Belarusian borders, i.e. the Baltic states, rather than those that granted them a visa.
In Lithuanian resorts, we are already witnessing an increase in Russian tourists that have entered the country with visas issued by other EU members. And since air travel from Russia to Europe is now very limited, the Baltics have become a major staging post for those travelling to Europe from Russia and Belarus — an all too accessible attraction for those who wish to enjoy a bit of the European lifestyle, while also supporting President Vladimir Putin’s war.
Thus, EU members that continue to issue tourist visas to Russians are not only ignoring all the atrocities committed against Ukrainians, they are also effectively “inviting” Russian tourists to the Baltics. But Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania don’t wish to welcome Russian visitors who are, in majority, supporters of Putin’s war — at least not until Ukraine’s ultimate victory.
And this contradiction, in time, has the potential to create rifts between countries that continue to issue tourist visas and those that have already stopped.
If we are in favour of European security and values, then we must solve another problem as well: Large numbers of multiple-entry visas, which are valid for three years or more, have already been issued. This means that even with no new visas being issued, a significant number of tourists would still be granted the possibility of enjoying the European lifestyle — one, according to authorities in Russia and Belarus, they should despise and even fight against.
Together, we need to find a joint and efficient solution to make a visa ban as effective as possible. And it should include, effective immediately, a clear “no” to Russian and Belarusian tourists; revoking already issued long-term multiple-entry visas, at least until the war has ended; and the continued welcome of those who seek refuge — not a European vacation.
Lithuania is the ultimate believer in European solidarity and joint solutions. And as we hear strong opposition to visa bans from some member countries, we strongly invite those who still believe in European values to at least scrutinize visas that have already been issued more carefully.
And, if there is ever any doubt, we must say a clear “no” to shameless Russian free riders at the border, while leaving Europe’s door open to democratic activists and those persecuted by the authoritarian regimes of Moscow and Minsk.
Open letter of Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian MFA. Article first time published on Politico.
Cower illustration: ITAR-TASS/Igor Zarembo