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Cyprus and Greece oppose ban on Russian tourist visas

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Cyprus and Greece are rallying behind Germany in opposing a block on visas for Russian tourists wanting to visit the EU, rejecting a call for such a ban by Ukraine.

Over the past weeks, officials from Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania have raised the idea of an EU-wide ban, but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been the most significant political heavyweight to voice opposition, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be blamed for the war in Ukraine rather than Russian people.

EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the calls for a tourist ban at a meeting in Prague at the end of August.

Cyprus, which is home to a large Russian-speaking expatriate commmunity, is taking a similar position to Berlin.

“It would be a decision in the wrong direction,” Kornelios Korneliou, the general secretary of Cyprus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told POLITICO. “We believe in people-to-people contacts and even Turkish nationals are granted visas by the Cypriot authorities, so we don’t consider that measure has any value for Russians.”

The majority of Cyprus’ Russian speakers, some 50,000, live in Limassol, a city of 237,000 on the southern coast. Russians accounted for 25 percent of total tourist arrivals in the island before the war.

“We shouldn’t prevent these communities from coming into contact with families and friends,” Korneliou added. “The main weapon is European unity and our partners should respect the sensitivities of others on this issue.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month dismissed the idea that tourism visas should stay in place to protect people fleeing persecution | Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the strong Russian connections, the Cypriot government has backed the bloc’s escalating sanctions against Russia, despite the heavy price on the local economy. 

Officials in Cyprus say that despite the fact that many companies had to leave because of the sanctions, there is also a growing number of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian entrepreneurs, mainly from the IT sector, interested in setting up business in cities such as Limassol, even though no official figures are available.

In neighboring Greece, despite the strong Russophile sentiments that run deep in the society, given the centuries of religious, military, economic and cultural ties, the government was one of the first EU countries to announce it would send Kyiv arms to help fight off the invaders. 

But the country is also not considering changing the status of Russian visas, according to government officials.

Northern Greece is favored as a holiday destination by Russian tourists, traditionally in the summer.

The country has seen an impressive jump of 177 percent in July in arrivals by air from Turkey, compared to 2019, Greece’s record tourist year. It has also reported a massive 257 percent increase on arrivals from Serbia during the same period, according to figures from Athens International Airport. Officials note that many of them are Russian citizens traveling to Greece for vacation, as Serbian tourists usually visit Greece by car and Turks by ship. However, there are no specific figures available yet on the nationalities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month dismissed the idea that tourism visas should stay in place to protect people fleeing persecution.

“There are people who really need protection, who are persecuted in Russia, may even be killed, and therefore they should receive help from the civilized world,” he said. “These are well-known legal mechanisms — through refugee status, asylum requests, and other opportunities to help and support.”

“This should not apply to the rest of Russian citizens in Europe, tourism, entertainment, business affairs,” he added.

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