Estonian minister defends visa ban against Russian tourists

TALLINN, Estonia — Estonia’s foreign minister on Thursday defended his country’s decision to ban Russian tourists, saying they are abdicating their “moral responsibility” to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and his “genocidal war” in Ukraine.

The small Baltic country, which shares a 300-kilometer (190-mile) border with Russia, stopped issuing tourist visas to Russians months ago and has stopped accepting the previously issued visas since Thursday.

“Our idea is to send a signal to all our European partners, all our partners in the Western community, to close our borders to Russian citizens, except for 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 waging a genocidal war against an innocent people.”

Despite a ban on air travel from Russia to the European Union, Russians were able to holiday in Western Europe this summer by traveling overland through Estonia and other neighboring countries with tourist visas valid in Europe’s border-free travel zone.

Reinsalu said “hundreds of thousands” of Russian citizens traveling through Estonia posed a “clear security threat” and dismissed concerns that the visa ban would backfire by turning ordinary Russians against Europe and the West.

He said the legal responsibility for the war in Ukraine rests with Putin and his inner circle, “but there is also a … moral responsibility of Russian citizens as citizens of (the) aggressor state.”

“They need to wake up and protest the atrocities of the regime. Their tax money is literally being used to buy rockets and bombs to kill children in Ukraine,” he said.

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Exceptions to the entry ban include diplomats and Russians visiting close relatives in Estonia. It will not affect Russians with visas issued by other EU countries or allowed to enter Estonia on humanitarian grounds, but Estonian officials said they were working on proposals to also ban Russians with tourist visas issued by other EU countries.

Estonia, Finland and other EU countries bordering Russia have pushed for an EU-wide ban on Russian tourists, but some leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have dismissed the idea as counterproductive.

“This is not the war of the Russian people. It’s Putin’s war and we need to be very clear on that subject,” Scholz said.

An official from Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that Moscow is not ruling out the possibility of an EU-wide ban and will respond in any case.

“These steps will not go unanswered on the Russian side. You will know more about (retaliation) soon,” Ivan Nechaev, deputy head of the ministry’s communications department, told reporters.

Reinsalu mocked concerns that Russians’ “peaceful life” would be disrupted by denying them the chance to visit tourist attractions such as the Louvre in Paris, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin or the canals of Venice.

“I think there is no peaceful life in Ukraine, and our perspective is to end the genocidal war – this is a strategic goal,” he said.

Estonia and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania have endured five decades of Soviet occupation and have been strong advocates in the EU for tough sanctions against Russia and strong military aid to Ukraine.

Reinsalu also defended the government’s decision to dismantle remaining Soviet-era monuments, including a tank removed this week from a memorial to Red Army soldiers who died during World War II in the eastern city of Narva on the Russian side of Russia. border. The government said such monuments could be used by the Kremlin to sow division in Estonia, which has a sizable ethnic Russian minority.

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“The only thing we have learned from the past is that you have to act decisively and not let tensions build up,” Reinsalu said.


Associated Press writer Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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