On the banks of the Narva river, two medieval fortresses stand facing each other across the border dividing Russia and Estonia, a former Soviet republic that has already started to ban Russian tourists and is pushing for the European Union to prevent millions of them from vacationing inside the bloc while their country wages war in Ukraine.
Starting Tuesday, foreign ministers from across Europe will meet in Prague where Estonia, along with the other countries including Latvia and Finland, will lobby for a ban that would see Europe turn away Russians holding tourist visas for the Schengen zone, a bloc made up of 26 European countries.
If Europe doesn’t agree to act in unison, Estonia vows it will move forward with other like minded nations.
“Travel is not a human right,” Urmas Reinsalu, Estonia’s foreign affairs minister, told CBC News in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital on Aug. 25.
“We have to also give a strong push to Russian society to wake up. You can’t just walk on the streets … as a tourist, just eyes wide shut.”
Expanding travel ban
Reinsalu anticipates that this week’s meeting will be “heated” as a European divide has emerged around the fairness and practicality of a ban.
On Aug. 18, Estonia started banning Russian tourists who hold visas issued by Estonia. The government said the move affects about 50,000 people, but officials say there are about 10 million Russians who hold European tourist visas and that group would be targeted by the proposed European ban.
Most European countries bordering Russia, along with Poland, are advocating for the sweeping restrictions, but earlier this month while speaking in Norway, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said a ban would unfairly target ordinary Russians caught up in “Putin’s war.”
WATCH | Estonian chef opposes a visa ban on Russian tourists in Europe:
In Estonia, there is disagreement. Nearly a quarter of its population of 1.3 million are ethnic Russians, and that percentage is much higher right along the border.
When CBC visited the area on Aug. 22, the Russian community of Ivangorod was celebrating Flag Day across the Narva river which forms the border between the two nations.
A small crowd gathered on top of a towering fortress in Ivangorod to raise the Russian flag. Over a speaker, a loud voice boomed that the three colours of the Russian flag reflected “dignity and openness, honesty and loyalty, courage and generosity.”
In between the speeches, patriotic music including Russia’s national anthem blared across both sides of the border.
On the Estonian side of the river bank, 75-year-old Natalya Lagutine danced along, at times waving one of her crutches in the air, shouting “Hello” Russia.
Her children live in Russia and even though Estonia has promised exemptions for those visiting family, she still worries they could have problems crossing.
“This is simply an infringement,” she said, tearing up as she declares that she doesn’t believe Russian President Vladimir Putin started the war.
WATCH | Tallinn resident Mia Sukles backs a ban on tourist visas for Russians:
Along the bridge, a red fence post marks the dividing line between Estonia and Russia. Border guards standing at opposite ends of the bridge have very little contact.
According to Estonian border officials, about 5,000 people cross by foot and by vehicle each day.
With European airspace closed to Russian flights, the land border has become a key transit point out of the country.
Tarmo Hut, an Estonian police officer working at the border, told CBC that most of the visas they see have been issued by other European countries like France, Italy and Finland.
Estonia stopped giving new visas to Russian tourists back in March.
When CBC visited the border, some people were crossing back and forth to visit family and go shopping.
Valentina Plokhova spoke with CBC as she walked back into Estonia carrying a bag of crossword books. She went to Russia to buy them because she finds the puzzles more challenging than what’s available in Narva.
She has three brothers and a sister living in Russia, and said they are all worried about the tourism ban.
Even though she lives in Estonia, she considers herself Russian.
“We are always being blamed,” she said.
“How did it happen that suddenly all Russians are hated at the same time?”
After Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for Western countries to block Russian visitors, a spokesperson for the Kremlin called the idea irrational.
“This can only be seen extremely negatively. Any attempt to isolate Russia or Russians is a process that has no prospects,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Estonia has said it will make exemptions for Russians actively opposing the war, but in Russia any form of protest is banned, and those who try to speak out are often met with arrest.
WATCH | Estonian music promoter expresses support for a tourism visa ban on Russians:
Even though people have been sentenced to jail for criticizing the country’s military and speaking truthfully about the war in Ukraine, Estonia’s foreign minister said the climate of fear isn’t enough to give Russians a free pass.
In Narva, Alexander who declined to give his last name, said he thinks it’s preposterous for the Estonian government to think the travel ban will inspire Russians to rise up.
“They think … a government will be overturned, a coup or do something?” he said, while fishing along the river.
“None of this will happen.”
But on the streets of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, there is plenty of support for the government’s ban and plans to expand it.
In the Telliskivi district, a hip neighbourhood of art studios, start-ups and craft breweries, most of the people CBC spoke with think a ban on Russian visitors is justified.
“I get that all Russians are not necessarily pro-Putin … but we need to put out a clear signal that the things Russia is doing right now is not okay,” said 18-year-old Mia Sukles.
She said she understands the counterargument
Anne-Mai Küünemäe, who works as a dietitian in Tallinn, said while it might not seem right to punish all Russians, she believes it’s necessary.
“Nothing will happen until people themselves stand up and make their voice heard, ” she said.
“We cannot change Russia from the outside … It must happen from the inside.”
As Estonia is set to turn away more Russian visitors, officials are also warning Estonian citizens not to visit Russia, and urging those currently there to return home.
Like other Western countries, Estonia’s relations with Russia have deteriorated since the start of the Ukraine invasion.
As a former Soviet republic, Estonia’s government is especially keen to scrape away any symbols that connect it with Russia’s military.
On Aug. 16, a Soviet tank in Narva was removed with a crane. It was one of a number of Soviet memorials that have been taken down in the city at the request of Estonia’s government.
WATCH | Russia’s secret police says Ukrainian woman behind deadly car bombing:
In the days that followed, Estonia said it partially repelled a significant cyberattack that blocked access to more than 200 websites.
A Russian hacker group claimed responsibility.
After the suspected fatal car bombing of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a Russian nationalist ideologue who backed Putin, the country’s security services said the suspect fled to Estonia.
Estonia’s foreign minister has dismissed the accusation, calling it a ridiculous attempt to try and divert attention away from the war in Ukraine.