22 August 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
The 21st century has shown two ways of capitulating to a strong and insidious enemy: one, the old way, is to bow one’s head and lower one’s banners, admitting defeat; the other is to stop resisting, proudly declaring that the goals have been achieved. Authoritarian regimes, well trained in political hypocrisy, often use the second approach. But democracies, too, are not averse to using this method when there is nothing else to do but reconcile themselves to the stain on their reputation.
At the end of August the European Union will discuss the possibility of completely abolishing visas for Russians. The subject of visa restrictions excites society and the press. There is no consensus on the matter in Europe. The governments of Belgium, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Finland are in favour of a full or partial ban on Russians entering the EU. The governments of Germany, Cyprus, Greece and Portugal are firmly against such a ban. As a whole, the EU takes the view that EU visa rules do not allow for such measures. Ukraine, through its president, has called on the EU to put in place the very toughest visa policy.
The Russian authorities have not made their position clear. The Kremlin is holding its breath and waiting for the EU to hand it on a plate the chance to assert that the West hates all Russians and is doing everything possible to harm Russia. This will be a good propaganda trump card. Besides, it’s nice to have someone else do your job for you and the dream of a new Iron Curtain surely warms the heart of the Russian authorities.
Western politicians who favour visa sanctions believe such measures will increase dissatisfaction with Putin’s policies in Russia. This naïve view is mistaken for three reasons.
First, Europe itself is of little interest to the great majority of Russians. Russian tourists prefer to spend their vacations by the sea somewhere in Turkey, Thailand, or Egypt, not to mention the fact that no more than a third of Russians have foreign passports. The rest stay at home or spend their vacations in Sochi and Anapa.
It is estimated that 76% of Russians have never left Russia at all while a third of the country’s residents have never even left their own region. So possible EU sanctions ‘against all Russians’ would simply miss their target. It is doubtful European officials do not know this.
Secondly, Russian citizens have many far more important problems than difficulties with foreign travel. Foreign travel is already inaccessible for most Russians because of the sharp fall in the standard of living, lack of money and the general instability in the country. For a huge number of people, everyday survival takes all their energy and they can’t be bothered about any kind of foreign travel, no matter where, still less about the subtleties of visa policy. This problem is near the bottom of their priorities.
Thirdly, it is wrong to assume that, given the current intensity of official propaganda, Russians will unanimously direct their anger against Putin. A considerable proportion of Russians, unable to make a causal connection, will be unhappy precisely with Western policies.
So what is the point of this fuss about visa restrictions? The intention to punish people on the basis of nationality contradicts European legal traditions and derives from the pernicious theory of collective responsibility. It had seemed the practice of allotting blame, not for what a person does, but for their social, religious or racial identity had been consigned once and for all to the past. Therefore, the attempt to declare Russians a ‘people non grata’ has been condemned by that very liberal Russian public which is against Russian aggression in Ukraine and the trampling under foot of human rights.
The prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, expressing the views of many, has said that ‘visiting Europe is a privilege and not a human right.’ In this connection I would like to remind her that the Final Act of the Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki, 1975) obliges participating States to work towards the ‘Improvement of Conditions for Tourism on an Individual or Collective Basis’ (‘Co-operation in Humanitarian and Other Fields’ (1[e]). Improvement, not deterioration! This document has the force of international law and it has not been denounced by any of the signatory States Parties.
In addition, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 20) prohibits any advocacy of national discrimination. In the given case, this means that a state may establish its own visa rules but cannot make discriminatory exceptions based on nationality. Of course, in practice this norm is very often violated, but that is no reason not to point it out once again.
What will come of this whole kerfuffle about visa restrictions? Probably nothing. All the noise about the issue is just designed to demonstrate to Western society the determination of the European Union to resist the Kremlin’s aggressive policies. Europe (including Ukraine) is not ready to deprive Moscow of the huge sums of money it pays for oil and gas, which are used to maintain the Russian army, the repressive system and the war against Ukraine.
It is much easier to appear victorious by imposing sanctions on ordinary citizens, or at least discuss this topic out loud, than deprive the Russian military-industrial complex of revenues and thereby stop the war. This is precisely what the second method of capitulation is: harsh rhetoric against a background of paralyzing weakness. The bitter pill of the coming defeat, delivered in a sweet wrapper of determination and victory.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove