Finland has recently joined Sweden in seeking NATO membership in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Now Finnish politicians say they also support blocking Russian tourists from coming across the 1,340-km-long border the two countries share. It would be a bold move.
HELSINKI — For Russians, particularly the rising middle class in and around the city of Saint Petersburg, Finland has become a favorite travel destination. The capital Helsinki is only a three-and-half hour train ride away, the scenic Finnish lakeside town of Imatra sits across the border from Svetogorsk and Russian skiers flock to Lapland mountain resorts each winter.
But this tourist traffic may be about to vanish as a growing number of Finnish politicians are calling for restrictions on visas, a move that would broaden the scope of the sanctions against Russia to target ordinary people in addition to state enterprises, public officials and Oligarchs.
Such a clampdown would also come after the historic decision of Finland, which shares a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia, to seek NATO membership (alongside Sweden) in response to the invasion of Moscow’s southern neighbor, Ukraine.
On Monday a majority of political parties in Finland stated that they would be in favor of putting a temporary freeze on tourist visas for Russians. This would align Finland with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which have already stopped processing tourist visas. It would also bring Finnish policy closer to that of Norway, another Nordic country sharing a land border with Russia, which tightened its visa regulations for Russian tourists in June.
Support across political spectrum
Support for such a move has been expressed by parliamentary groups across the political spectrum, From the nationalist Finns Party to the moderate conservative National Coalition party to the greens and the Social Democrats who are currently the biggest party in government and hold the Prime Minister post.
It can be seen as a kind of “soft power” flipside of the decision of Finland (alongside Sweden) to join the NATO military alliance, which is awaiting final Parliamentary approval.
For Finland, suspending tourist visas would be a bold move, with significant economic consequences: before the COVID-19 pandemic, Russians made up the biggest source of tourism in the country.
Since Finland lifted some of the travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic, Russian eagerness to visit their Western neighbour has picked up quickly, with 10,520 visas granted for Russian tourists in the first three weeks of July this year, according to the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Consulate-General of Finland in St Petersburg
A transit country to Europe
Some Finnish politicians, including Acting Prime Minister Steering Tytti Tuppurainen, have looked to quell such an immediate visa suspension. In an interview with Finnish dailyIltalehti, Leena Liukkonen from the consular services at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs said until now the aim was that “sanctions do not target ordinary people.” But Liukkonen added that any changes to the visa policies will be made by politicians.
Finland should not be a transit country.
A temporary freeze on visas may also affect other European countries, as Russians use Finland as a point of entry to the EU before continuing their journey to other European holiday destinations, according to Finland’s biggest daily newspaperHelsingin Sanomat.
The issue of being a transit country has also raised questions within the government as the Minister of Justice, Anna-Maja Henriksson stated that while she could not yet support a temporary freeze on tourist visas without having examined the proposal in greater detail “Finland should not be a transit country.”
The visa issue is one more sign that the relationship between the two neighbors has fundamentally changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Interviewed last week on Russian television, Moscow’s ambassador to Finland Pavel Kuznetsov was more focused on the threats on the soft power front, including Finland’s ending cooperation on economic, scientific, educational, cultural and sports, as well as the connections have been lost between sister cities and among civil society organizations.
"Finns,” Kuznetsov said, “used to be good friends until not that long ago and now they have cut all cooperation." When the Finnish Parliament reconvenes in September, we will see if the next step will be cutting off ordinary Russian visitors too.