Weakly Against the Cessation of the Issuance of Tourist Visas for Russians

2022-09-03 • 11 min read

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Summary #

I argue that, while each nation should be free to decide for itself whether to receive Russian tourists, the arguments commonly given in favour of tourist visa bans for Russians are weak:

So since there are benefits to allowing Russians to travel to Europe on tourist visas, a ban seems unjustified, at least for now.

I’m against the Russian Regime #

Let me just get this out of the way before I set out to defend the rights of Russian citizens:

The reason I mention this is to assure you that I’m not a Kremlin supporter. I just happen to think that the proponents of a Russian tourist visa ban are wrong on this particular point, as I will soon explain. (However, you’ll find some caveats in this footnote.[1])

“Whichever Kind of Russian … Make Them Go to Russia” #

Let’s set the scene …

Exhibit 1. On August 8, the Washington Post reported:

The way to stop Russia from annexing any more of Ukraine’s territory, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday, is for Western countries to announce that they would ban all Russian citizens in response.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Zelensky said that “the most important sanctions are to close the borders – because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land”. He said Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”.

The piece goes on to quote Zelensky as saying:

Whichever kind of Russian … make them go to Russia. […] They’ll understand then. They’ll say, “This [war] has nothing to do with us. The whole population can’t be held responsible, can it?” It can. The population picked this government and they’re not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it.

Exhibit 2. On August 18, the AP reported:

Estonia’s foreign minister on Thursday defended his country’s decision to bar Russian tourists, saying they are shirking their “moral responsibility” to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and its “genocidal war” in Ukraine. […] “Our idea is to give a signal to all our European partners, all our Western community partners, to close down our borders to Russian citizens, except humanitarian cases”, Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told The Associated Press in an interview in Tallinn. “Russian citizens are not welcome in Europe. Their country is committing a genocidal war against an innocent people.” […] Reinsalu said “hundreds of thousands” of Russian citizens passing through Estonian soil posed an “evident security threat” and dismissed concerns that the visa ban could backfire by turning ordinary Russians against Europe and the West.

The piece goes on to quote Reinsalu as saying:

[Though the legal responsibility for the war lies with Putin,] there is also a […] moral responsibility of Russian citizens as citizens of [the] aggressor state. […] They have to wake up and protest against the regime’s atrocities. Their tax money literally is used to buy rockets and bombs to kill children in Ukraine.

Exhibit 3. On August 17, Bloomberg published an opinion piece by Leonid Bershidsky that argued that the Russian opposition shouldn’t criticise these demands. (They have.) Bershidsky writes:

We anti-Putin Russians are missing a great chance to keep mum. Instead, the volume of media and social network commentary suggests that we are putting our concern over the possible loss of travel to Europe (with no effect on visa-free travel to dozens of other countries) at least on a par with our concern over what our birth country is perpetrating daily in Ukraine. This loss of face and show of selfishness is one the emigre community cannot afford.

[…]

The arguments for and against the visa ban are obvious: On the one hand, it’s weird to let Russians vacation blithely in countries that materially support Ukraine and accept Ukrainian refugees; on the other, “tourist” visas allow fugitives from the regime to seek asylum in Europe rather than be pushed back from the border, like, for example, many Chechen asylum seekers who have tried to enter Poland in recent years. Yet the issue has resonated so widely – and put Peskov and Russian liberals on the same side of a virtual border fence – because it transcends rational and moral arguments. The underlying truth is that Russians of any stripe, whatever they say about Putin and the war in Ukraine, are not wanted in many European countries these days. Without exception, these countries are those that were attacked, occupied or subjugated by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

(I don’t have a strong opinion on whether the Russian opposition should or should not criticise this. That’s a strategic and empirical question I don’t know much about.)

Since then European foreign ministers have convened in Prague to discuss the matter, though the Union remains partly divided.

The Arguments and What I Think about Them #

The main strands of argument for why the EU should stop issuing Russian tourist visas that I’ve come across are:

  1. This will put pressure on Russian citizens and/or the Russian government, making the war (and regime) end sooner.[2]
  2. This will reduce security risks in the EU, for example of Russian espionage, sabotage and assassinations.[3]
  3. This will send a strong, galvanising message. It will show Ukraine that the EU’s support doesn’t waver, and it’ll show the EU itself that it’s able to act meaningfully.[4]
  4. This will be an act of justice. All Russians are responsible for the invasion, and should be punished the way a person is punished for being an accomplice to a crime. And as with any crime, the punishment here acts as a deterrence against future crimes. (This argument is somewhat rarer but not uncommon.)

In addition, advocates of a visa ban assert that getting to visit Europe is a privilege, not a human right, and one that can be revoked if warranted. (I concur.) They may agree that the default should be to allow people to visit Europe, since it’s beneficial to visitors (who get to see the Louvre or whatever) and to the hosts (who get money for it) and freedom of movement in general seems like a good thing. But, they’d say, in this case the benefits of barring Russians tourists far outweigh the costs.

I think the effects of doing so are unclear or even negative. Specifically, looking at each of the four arguments in turn:

  1. It’s not clear to me how a visa ban is meant to make Russian citizens cause an end to the war (or topple the government). I guess it must either (i) convince apolitical or pro-regime Russians that they should advocate for Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine or (ii) convince dissident Russians that they should do more to end the war. But:
    • I think a visa ban is more likely to turn apolitical and pro-regime Russians (further) against the EU and Ukraine than against the war and the regime. If another country banned me (as a Swedish citizen) from visiting their country for something I wasn’t directly responsible for, I’d probably feel a little bit annoyed. It definitely wouldn’t make me more sympathetic towards them.
      • I suspect that economic sanctions are more effective at this, and I support them. They appear more targeted at the Russian state, and less at Russian citizens.
    • I don’t think a visa ban is likely to make dissident Russians do more to end the war. I think they’re mostly in a state of collective learned helplessness, and I doubt the stick is the tool to get them out of it.
  2. I’m not convinced that this will meaningfully reduce security risks. It’s true that Russians have in the past used tourist visas when carrying out black ops in the EU, including things like espionage and assassinations. But – and maybe this is just me being naive – surely that’s a very minor inconvenience for a state intelligence agency: seems like you could easily obtain student or business visas or use faked Kazakh passports or whatever instead. I’m not confident about this, but I’d like to see visa ban proponents actually make the case, instead of simply asserting it to be so.
  3. I don’t think asking for a thing usually means you get to ask for even more things in future? I’m not sure I understand this argument perfectly, but to me it seems impossible to predict not only the size of this sort of effect, but even whether it’s ultimately a beneficial or a harmful one.
    • I’d be curious to see a more detailed model for how this is meant to play out. In the absence of one, this sort of argument sounds like applause lights to me.
  4. It does not make sense to assign guilt to ordinary Russians and to demand that they act on the basis of that guilt. The argument proves too much. All of us are mildly guilty of something all the time, and different people have different ideas about what’s most important.
    • I, for example, happen to think that reducing malaria death counts (~600K people annually, mostly children) is at least as important as working to end the war in Ukraine.[5] Just as many ordinary Russians neither actively support Putin nor actively oppose him, I expect most visa ban proponents neither actively support nor actively oppose malaria. Does this mean that I should put a rod to their backs for enabling the terrible suffering of malaria victims?
      • I think a visa ban proponent is likely in a position to do more for a (potential) malaria sufferer than a Russian can do to oust Putin. $5,000 donated to AMF saves a life, on average; the average EU wage earner can donate that amount in 2 years if they give 10% of their income.[6] A Russian protesting Putin for two years will get harassed, beat up, arrested, threatened with expulsion if they’re a student, etc.[7]
    • I’m generally suspicious of advocates of any cause who tell me I’m not doing more to further their cause. Sometimes this criticism is true and correct. But mostly I think it misses the mark. I think it misses the mark when it doesn’t consider, or seems mistaken about, (i) how bad the state of affairs is, (ii) how much power I have to change it and (iii) the costs of trying to change it.
    • Sometimes punishment is warranted, but the bar has to be higher than “stuff of the sort everyone everywhere does or neglects”.

Who Are These Tourists? #

It does feel weird and unseemly, as Bershidsky says, for wealthy, pro-regime Russians to tour Europe while their compatriots are warring in Ukraine. I wouldn’t do it if I were them. But I’m against bans on weird and unseemly.

More importantly, the wealthy and pro-regime are not the only Russians who want to enter the EU, and people don’t only use tourists visas for leisure (despite what foreign policy connoisseurs say). They also use them to visit family, friends and loved ones, they use them to do entry exams at European universities, they use them to emigrate, etc. Migrating and studying abroad are not the tourist visa’s intended purpose, but it’s a common use.[8] I know ≥3 (dissenting) Russians who have lived in Europe ≥5 years and who all initially came here using tourist visas.

(After Ukrainian asylum applications in the EU peaked in March and April, there have been as many Russian applications as Ukrainian.[9] Many Russian emigrants are skilled labourers: Iontsev, Ryazantsev, and Iontseva (2016) says the share of specialists went “from 14% in 1992 to 31% in 1999 and to 47% in 2012”; as of five years ago, >1M Russians worked abroad, many of them young. People who move away from Russia are likely less supportive of the regime than those who stay behind.)

Conclusion #

I think the arguments for a ban are weak and don’t outweigh the drawbacks. But here are some things that’d shift my view in the direction of favouring a ban:

I hope and believe that at some point in the coming decades relations between Russia and the West will have improved again. It looks grim now. But a decade passes quickly; the end rarely matches the spirit it starts in.[10]

References #

Iontsev, Vladimir A, Sergey V Ryazantsev, and Svetlana V Iontseva. 2016. “Emigration from Russia: New Trends and Forms.” R-Economy 2 (2): 216--24.
Ryazantsev, Sergey, and Artem Lukyanets. 2016. “Emigration of Young People from Russia: Forms, Trends and Consequences.” Vestnik Tadzhikskogo Universiteta Prava, Biznesa I Politiki. Ser. Obshchestvennykh Nauk, 60--72.
Wood, Tony. 2020. Russia without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. Verso Books.

Footnotes #

  1. I’m not an expert on foreign policy, Russia, or anything else that’s relevant here. I estimate I did <3 hours of research when writing this. I know more Russians than Ukrainians, and it’s possible that my personal relationships are clouding my judgment. ↩︎

  2. For example as expressed by Benjamin Tallis: “[W]ithdrawing this privilege is one the things we can meaningfully do to show ‘ordinary’ Russians that they too must bear the costs of their (repeatedly) chosen leader’s brutality. This is about sticks, not carrots, now. After too long of playing nice it’s time to increase the squeeze on the dictator and his everyday enablers.” (I think Tallis seriously overestimates both the extent to which Russian elections have been fair these past two decades and the extent to which the West has been “playing nice”.) ↩︎

  3. Also as expressed by Benjamin Tallis: “[A] visa ban would be an investment in our own security and the resilience of our democracies. It would directly block a channel through which Russian agents of influence can move into our societies.” ↩︎

  4. Once again in the words of Benjamin Tallis: “[T]he visa ban would be a powerful show of Europe’s resolve to support Ukraine and stand up to Russia’s vicious revanchism. The prohibition is something Ukraine’s leaders have asked for and which is in our power to enact. Doing so would demonstrate our dedication to their cause at a time when Ukrainians may feel nervous about Europeans’ sticking power. […] [E]nacting the tourist visa ban would be a step towards unleashing the EU states’ latent power and putting it to good purpose. For too long [have we] only half-heartedly tried to stand up to Russia[.]” ↩︎

  5. That said, the long-run consequences of the war could be very large, e.g. if it leads to a great power conflict or anything of that sort. It seems extremely hard to know even the sign of that effect. ↩︎

  6. The average annual salary of an EU worker is €24,947. EUR/USD is at pretty much $1 right now. €5,000 ÷ (10% × $24,947) = 2.00 years. ↩︎

  7. There’s an interesting analogy here to vegetarianism.

    You might argue that each decision to purchase plant-based products instead of meat won’t affect the actual number farmed animals, since the supermarket or restaurant purchases a certain amount of stock, which a non-purchase is unlikely to affect. The response to that is that, yes, it’s unlikely to affect the next purchase, but when it does it’ll have an outsize effect: maybe only the 100th or 1,000th customer going vegetarian causes the supermarket to change their order sizes, but then they’ll change them to a quantity tailored to 100 or 1,000 fewer consumers. (I’ve written about this here.)

    Likewise, you might argue that each decision to protest the Russian government won’t affect the Russian government. A response to that is that, yes, one decision to protest won’t affect it alone, but a tipping point of protestors can bring about a regime change.

    I think both counterarguments are correct, but there’s an important difference here. The difference is that, for causing regime change in Russia, there’s a single tipping point (probably >1M people) that needs reaching – one we’re currently very far away from – and likely with neutral-to-net-negative consequences if not reached, whereas for reducing animal suffering, there are multiple much smaller tipping points, where every Nth person (where N is ≪1M) makes a difference. In other words, you need way fewer vegetarians to make a tangible difference than you need protesting Russians. ↩︎

  8. Iontsev, Ryazantsev, and Iontseva (2016): “In the last three decades, an increasingly larger group of people have been going to other countries on a tourist visa but with economic objectives. We consider this category of ‘economic tourists’ as migrants.”

    Ryazantsev and Lukyanets (2016): “[S]tudies show that nowadays many Russian citizens find a job abroad without going through the official channels, arriving in different countries having work, business, tourist and guest visas, directly meeting employers and do not fall into the data of the Federal Migration Service.” ↩︎

  9. This can be gleaned from the data at Eurostat. ↩︎

  10. That’s a mangled passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For example, a decade ago Russia, in its foreign policy documents, still viewed itself as a part of European civilisation (Wood 2020, 147). Now it seems more in the grip of Duginist Neo-Eurasianism, which Wood (2020) argues is partly a result of the vacuum left by pro-Western ideas, ideas that became untenable as relations with the West deteriorated. ↩︎