Vadim Kobzev figured it would be easy for him to obtain a humanitarian visa to enter Germany.
After all, his decision to flee Russia for Georgia in April, a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was preceded by years of interrogations, threats, and police raids targeting him for his work as a regional coordinator in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don for Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and Kremlin gadfly who is now Russia’s most famous political prisoner.
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So Kobzev, 25, was surprised when the German Embassy in Tbilisi denied his visa application, telling him that Georgia was a “safe country” for Russians.
He’s a bit stunned by the decision, he said. And he’s a bit dismayed about the growing chorus of European lawmakers and policy-makers who are advocating for a ban on visas for Russian tourists, as way to punish Russia for its war on Ukraine.
“I support any adequate measures that will help stop the war. But how will thousands of imprisoned Russian activists help?” he told RFE/RL.
“At the moment, this is one of the few ways for members of the Russian opposition, who are under criminal prosecution in Russia, to escape torture and prison,” he said.
“Despite that fact, European leaders claim that the humanitarian procedures for issuing visas are well-functioning. Using my example, you can see this program does not work.”
Kobzev’s case is symptomatic of a larger, heated discussion now ricocheting around many European capitals: should the European Union impose a ban on Russian tourists -- or all Russian citizens – as a way to pressure the Kremlin and punish the country for its war on Ukraine.
'It's Not Right'
It’s a position advocated avidly by non-EU member Ukraine, whose President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for it in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month.
“They must be deprived of the right to cross international borders until they learn to respect them,” Foreign Ministry Dmytro Kuleba said August 10.
Among EU members, the Baltic states and Finland have taken up the call. That’s mainly motivated by their proximity, which make them a popular first destination for Russian tourists traveling to Europe, all the more so as major airlines have cut nearly all flights to Russia.
Estonia’s prime minister on August 9 called for a ban on tourist visas for Russians. Latvia has suspended the issuance of tourist visas for Russians, and Finland’s foreign minister announced this week that the country would cut the number it hands out by 90 percent.
“It’s not right that at the same time as Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists. It’s not right,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told public broadcaster Yle News.
Denmark’s foreign minister said he would favor a joint effort but also signaled a willingness to go it alone.
“I consider it shameful that Russian tourists can sunbathe and live in luxury in the south of Europe, while Ukrainian cities are bombed beyond recognition,” Jeppe Kofod was quoted as telling the Danish news agency Ritzau.
The proposal has been met with a lukewarm response from bigger EU members, most notably Germany, which has been loath to take more aggressive action against Moscow in response to the invasion of Ukraine. EU foreign ministers are planning to discuss the idea at a meeting in Prague later this month.
For many on both sides, the debate hinges largely on the question of whether all Russians share responsibility -- and how much -- for the actions of President Vladimir Putin, the government, and the military.
"This is Putin's war, so I have a very hard time accepting that idea” that ordinary Russians should be punished with a visa ban, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters in Berlin.
The issue is further complicated by the Schengen system, a multinational visa that allows Russians to visit nearly all EU members merely by obtaining a single visa from one member.
In Moscow, officials have reacted angrily to the calls for a ban and restrictions on vias issuance in some EU countries.
“In their unfriendliness, many of these countries slip into unconsciousness. And they reach, again, such statements that literally 80 years ago we heard from the center of Europe, from certain European countries,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters on August 9.
In a post to Telegram on August 18, Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is now a pugnacious public commentator, made veiled threats about Russian natural gas supplies being turned off to Europe.
“Do not be silent. Call your fools to account. And we will hear you,” Medvedev wrote, appealing to Europeans. “The benefits are obvious: in the winter in Russia’s company, it is much warmer and more comfortable than in splendid isolation with the gas stove turned off and the radiator cold.”
The discussion has been taken up by Russia’s intelligentsia and chattering classes -- on Facebook, on VKontakte, on Telegram – by those who have already fled, and by those who remain.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political commentator and longtime analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it was folly to think that banning ordinary Russians from vacationing in Europe would help undermine Putin’s government.
“The notion that it is possible to turn Russians against Putin by ‘punishing’ them with a visa ban is unfounded,” he said in a commentary published on August 12.
“It would only encourage those who are already not pro-Western or pro-liberal to support Putin more, while those who have a democratic orientation and oppose the regime would find themselves cornered: On one side they are persecuted by Putin's siloviki while on the other they are abandoned to their fate by the West,” he wrote. The term “siloviki” refers broadly to top officials of Russia’s security, military, and law enforcement agencies.
An organization called the Anti-War Committee of Russia, whose members include some of Russia’s best-known political dissidents and émigrés, has also criticized the idea, saying that “calls for a visa ban for all Russian citizens, including those who take a clear anti-war stance and risk long-term imprisonment as a result, have sad examples in recent European history and clearly play to the Kremlin's advantage.”
Sergei Medvedev, a political scientist, former professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, and regular contributor to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, said the Kremlin was already cutting Russia off from Europe, and Russians’ handwringing over the wisdom of a visa ban was misplaced.
“We are talking about the end of a 30-year era in which Russians felt at home in Europe,” he said in a post to Facebook. “Rather than crying about the fate of Russian Europeans and Schengen visas, it's better to chip in like the Lithuanians and buy Bayraktars”—a reference to the Turkish drones that have played a substantial role in bolstering Ukraine’s defense.
For some Russians, complaints about EU proposals are misguided. Russian ire should be squarely aimed at the Kremlin, said Alfred Kokh, who served as former Russian deputy prime minister in the late 1990s, and, in particular, at Russian intelligence agencies that have been implicated in incidents of sabotage, attempted assassinations, and hacking in Europe.
“Europe simply has no other choice,” he argued in a Facebook post.
“And if you want again to visit the Piazza della Signoria in Florence or visit the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, then you should wish with all your might that the Ukrainian Army defeats Putin's warriors as soon as possible, and that peace reigns on Ukrainian soil and it liberates its entire territory from occupiers,” added Kokh, who lives in Western Europe.
Political scientist Aleksandr Kynev, meanwhile, asserted that a proposed EU visa ban was an electoral ploy by hard-line nationalists ahead of elections in some of the Baltic States. And he said such a ban would be a boon to the Kremlin, providing it with fodder to argue to average Russians that they are victims and under threat from Europe.
“It will have long-term negative geopolitical consequences,” he said in a commentary published by the Moscow Times. “In Russia, the feeling of national resentment will increase, the destruction of the pro-European oriented part of society will continue.”
In Riga, the Latvian capital, one Russian-speaking woman told Current Time that she agreed with Ukrainian officials calling for the EU to impose a visa ban on Russian citizens.
“Russians need to be isolated so that they can’t impose their vision on the world,” said the woman, who did not give her name or nationality, but said she grew up in Ukraine. “If their world is so good, let them all live in it. There is no need to scold Europe. Everyone scolds Europe, but everyone wants to study, get medical treatments, take vacations in Europe.”
“There is collective responsibility here,” she said.
Kobzev, the political activist, said he’s still hoping for a change in the decision by German Embassy officials, but he also welcomes the broader debate about Russian immigration rules.
He cites the historic parallel of Russians fleeing their country in the early 20th century, after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, such as Nobel Prize-winning author Ivan Bunin, or famed classical composer Sergei Rachmaninov.
“These people continued their reality in Europe, made scientific and cultural discoveries,” he told RFE/RL.
Many of the Russians who have fled more recently, he said, continue their political work from abroad.
“They continue to engage in political activities. They participate in anti-war actions, collect humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees, and volunteer,” he said.
“They do not pose a threat to EU countries. Most of these people have higher education, are specialists in certain areas, know foreign languages, and are carriers of European culture. They can easily integrate and be useful.”