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Tripping Out? Finland Tightens Rules For Russians Getting Visas

Since Russia's seizure of Crimea, EU-member Finland has taken steps to align itself with NATO.

For Russians hoping to travel to Finland, the road just got a little bit more bumpy.

As of September 1, Finland has tightened the rules for Russians applying for a visa. Helsinki says it's nothing more than an administrative move to align the country with the requirements of the EU's Schengen Area, a zone composed of 26 European countries that have officially abolished border controls between their territories.

But while many in Russia are taking the change in stride, others suspect politics lurk behind Helsinki's decision.

"A visa is a barrier for tourism and business. To me it seems to be a relic from the Cold War," Valery Shlyamin, who was Russia's trade representative to Finland for 15 years, told the Far North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Russia's ties with the West have worsened over a range of issues, including Moscow's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its subsequent support for separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives over the past 5 1/2 years.

Given Finland's precarious geography -- it shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia -- Helsinki has tended to tread carefully in its relations with Moscow. However, since Russia's seizure of Crimea, EU-member Finland has taken steps to align itself with NATO, the Western military alliance it long stayed away from for fears of angering Russia.

Busy Border

Cross-border travel between Finland and Russia is brisk, especially from Russia's Karelia region, which Finland was forced to cede in 1940 following its defeat in the so-called Winter War with the Soviet Union.

According to Schengen Visa Info, Finland's embassy and consulates in Russia processed just over 669,000 visa applications in 2018, mostly at the consulates in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Petrozavodsk, the regional capital of Karelia.

In the past, a Russian wishing to travel to Finland only needed to fill out a simple form, and provide a photo and proof of health insurance. Now they will need to provide a travel plan and prove they have the means to finance their stay.

The Finnish Consulate in Petrozavodsk
The Finnish Consulate in Petrozavodsk

Tarvo Nieminen, the Finnish consul in Petrozavodsk, said the changes were in line with other EU regulations, suggesting Russians were not being singled out.

"The new requirements were introduced so that the package of documents needed to apply for a visa is uniform for all countries participating in the Schengen agreement. Finland's position in the past on this question differed from other countries in the Schengen group," Nieminen explained to RFE/RL.

"This was bound to happen sooner or later, and we couldn't delay it any longer," the diplomat added, pointing out the changes were delayed until September to ease the burden on summer-vacationing Russians.

According to the Association of Tour Operations of Russia, in 2018 Finland issued some 71,400 tourist visas to Russians.

Nieminen declined to comment on whether the changes could impact tourism, business, and trade between Russia and Finland.

Shlyamin, the former Russian trade representative, is convinced Russia is paying the price for its annexation of Crimea and "internal events in Ukraine."

"The crisis that arose affected trade and flows of tourists. And it continues to have an impact," Shlyamin told RFE/RL, lamenting that talk of creating a visa-free zone between Karelia and Finland is a thing of the past.

Also giving a thumbs-down to the Finnish move is Aleksei Tsykarev, who heads the Center for the Support of Indigenous People and Public Diplomacy, a Karelia-based NGO.

Visas, Tsykarev is convinced, are being used as "political leverage."

"In my opinion, it has always been the Russian side that has come forward with positive steps, from liberalizing the border regulations for fans during the [2018 soccer] World Cup to offering to completely doing away with visas," Tsykarev said. "The latest initiative to open St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region to a simplified application -- with a free electronic visa -- was announced almost simultaneously with the tightening the screws by the Finnish side."

During the Cold War, Finland was caught in the middle between the Soviet Union and the West. In exchange for sovereignty over its domestic affairs, Finland agreed not to pursue a Moscow-unfriendly foreign policy. However, Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014 prompted Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to reduce contact with and sanction Russia, in keeping with wider EU policy. Niinisto has also expressed a willingness to Finland joining NATO someday. Over the past five years, the country has started modernizing its military with weapons compatible with NATO systems.

While some Russians may see Helsinki playing politics, others seemed unfazed by Finland's new visa requirements.

Aleksandr Barbashin runs buses daily from Petrozavodsk to the Finnish capital, Helsinki, some 735 kilometers to the west. He doubts the tougher rules for obtaining Finnish visas will cause a dip in his business.

"A large percentage of passengers have in Finland a residency permit, a visa to study, or Finnish citizenship. Therefore, these people won't be affected by the new rules. It's hard to predict far into the future, but we hope it would bring a lot of change," Barbashin told RFE/RL.

Tatyana Islamayeva, the head of the Center for the Finnish Language in Karelia and a former adviser on business affairs for Russia in Finland, said Finland was powerless to put off the changes to come in line with other EU countries.

"EU security policy dictates certain actions be taken in its border areas. Finland can't decide visa issues on its own. It has to follow EU policies. Will it affect the flow of Russian tourists? Maybe, but the Russian tourist who travels often to Finland will get used to the new rules," Islamayeva explained.

"It's not a tightening [of the rules], but only the adoption of additional measures. I don't think it's anything to get hysterical about. We will turn the page and go on."