The Finnish government is coming under increasing public and political pressure to close the EU’s eastern border with Russia, ending an apparent sanctions loophole.
In mid-July, Russia relaxed its COVID-related border restrictions, meaning that for the first time since before the pandemic, Russians with Schengen visas can legally cross the border by bus or car, even though they are prohibited from traveling to the border. EU on planes and trains.
“The Russians have started to come,” said Juho Pesonen, professor of tourism business at the University of Eastern Finland.
“Shopping tourism has always been one of the main reasons why Russian tourists come to Finland, even for a day,” he told Euronews.
Current absolute figures are low: so far in July there have been some 176,000 border crossings. That is far less than before the pandemic, when there were nearly 950,000 crossings in July 2019, with tens of thousands of Russians coming each day.
Lappeenranta, the main city in southeastern Finland, had a daily income of one million euros before the pandemic, thanks to the purchasing power of the Russians.
But the fact is that any Russian coming to Finland is remarkable, because Finland is now the last EU country bordering Russia to continue to issue tourist visas – some 13,000 so far this year – while other countries like Poland and the Baltic countries have stopped doing so.
Moscow will “react negatively” if Helsinki follows suit and also suspends visa services for Russians, a Kremlin spokesman said this week.
Political reaction in Finland
The main political parties in Finland widely support the idea of curbing Russian tourism by refusing to issue new visas. However, this support is somewhat weakened by the approximately 100,000 Russians who already have Finnish Schengen visas, and by the hundreds of thousands more who have Schengen visas issued by other countries.
The Finnish government seems to want to wait for the EU to adopt a common position on this, instead of acting unilaterally. With Prime Minister Sanna Marin currently on summer vacation, there is a feeling that her acting replacement is unlikely to make a decisive move.
Opposition party politician Kai Mykkänen says it remains important to send a message to the Russian people through visa sanctions.
“This is not an easy decision, and internally we have been talking about the pros and cons,” said Mykkänen, chairman of the parliamentary group of the center-right National Coalition party.
“The main challenge is that closing the opportunity for the Russians to come here could create anger towards us, while our goal is to create anger towards the Putin regime and the war,” he told Euronews.
“But considering all this, the right thing to do is to show the Russians that they, too, as a nation, have a responsibility to uphold the current regime and its policies, as long as the scale of violations is occurring in Ukraine,” Mykkänen continued. “We cannot continue to have normal relations between our two countries.”
Movement along the border
Between Finland and Russia there is 1,340 km of largely unguarded border, with only a small number of official crossing points.
Before COVID, Russians living close to the border used to come to Finland for weekend getaways or to go shopping in Finnish supermarkets and department stores.
In the peak years of 2012-2014, when the ruble was relatively strong against the euro, so many Russians drove across that there was even a website dedicated to documenting illegally parked Russian cars in Lappeenranta.
Some Finnish companies have clearly wanted to take advantage of this new Russian influx, and a photo posted this week on social media showing 10kg sacks of sugar stacked on pallets, apparently prepared for Russians suffering from shortages related to sanctions in his country, provoked indignant comments.
“A lot of people are angry with the Russians,” said University of Eastern Finland professor Juho Pesonen.
“But, of course, companies have to adjust to this new situation and the problem for many is that nobody knows what is going to happen next week, next month, next year. There is no way to foresee the political strategy of Russia” or of Finland.
“If we look at the Russians who come to Finland, many do shopping tourism. As a businessman, it would be convenient to sell those products that Russians are looking for, such as coffee or sugar,” he added.
As Finnish supermarkets stock up to meet new Russian demand, St Petersburg’s bus companies say they are running at full capacity.
“In recent weeks it has been systematically filled. People want to take advantage of easier commuting,” said Sergei Ivanov of the Balt Car company.
A Russian tourist in Lappeenranta said that he has been visiting Finland for 12 years.
“It’s a beautiful country, with nature and lakes,” said Boris Sourovtsev, who lives in St. Petersburg, some 400 km away.
With his five-year visa to Finland, Sourovtsev, 37, used to visit the country several times a year, but now he fears this will come to an end.
“I would be very sad and disappointed. I hope the war ends soon,” he said.
Some local merchants are also against the idea of denying Russians the chance to visit Finland, especially after suffering the economic impact of their absence during the pandemic.
“It’s the most absurd idea. What do they gain by isolating ordinary Russians?” asks Mohamad Darwich, owner of Laplandia Market, a store located a few minutes from the border.
“They [people calling for the visa ban] are causing a big problem for locals and businesses.”