x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Estonia bars Russian official from Europe

A senior Russian government official has found himself barred from entering most European countries thanks to the tiny ex-Soviet republic.

MOSCOW // Estonia has made no secret of the fact that it has barred scores of Russian political activists from entering European countries as punishment for what it calls a campaign of violence and intimidation against its citizens and officials three years ago. But in a sign of Russia's often rocky path to integration with Europe, a senior Russian government official has also found himself barred from entering most European countries thanks to the tiny ex-Soviet republic.

Vasily Yakemenko, 38, the head of Russia's state committee for youth affairs, is barred from entering the 25 European countries comprising the Schengen visa zone, thanks to a decision by the Estonian interior ministry to place him on a blacklist, according to Estonian officials. Having joined the Schengen treaty two years ago, Estonia, like other treaty members, has the right to unilaterally bar individuals from the Schengen zone.

It was Mr Yakemenko's work as the former leader of a pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, that landed him on the blacklist. Nashi activists targeted Estonia in 2007 for relocating a Second World War memorial from central Tallinn to a nearby military cemetery. For many Estonians, the statue was a symbol of Soviet occupation, while for much of Estonia's Russian-speaking population it was a powerful, sobering reminder of the Soviet victory over the Nazis.

In April and May 2007, Nashi activists camped outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow to protest against the decision and stormed a press conference held by the Estonian ambassador to Russia, prompting the ambassador's security to disperse the crowd with tear gas. Estonia accused Russia of violating the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations for failing to protect its diplomats in Moscow. Estonia responded by barring Mr Yakemenko and hundreds of other Nashi activists from entering Estonia, then extended the ban to the Schengen zone when it joined the treaty in December 2007.

"The direct entry ban for all EU countries will limit the plans of these young people in the future," Jüri Pihl, the Estonian interior minister, told the media at the time. "That means these young people are sacrificing excellent opportunities to study, work and build a career." The ban on Mr Yakemenko remains in place to this day, despite his having since taken a senior government post, two Estonian officials with knowledge of the situation said on condition of anonymity. The database for persons on the Schengen blacklist is not open to the public. 

Europe is a magnet for much of Russia's business and political elite, a pleasant respite from the relentless pace of life in Moscow, where a majority of Russia's ruling class resides. Many of them maintain property, businesses and bank accounts in Europe, send their children to prestigious continental boarding schools and holiday in posh resorts in the Alps.  But Russian officials say EU countries formerly under Moscow's domain - such as Poland, Lithuania and Estonia - often abuse their status as EU members to punish their former imperial masters.

In 2007, Poland stalled EU-Russia negotiations on a pact involving economic and political ties after Russia imposed a ban on Polish meat. Lithuania has also raised objections about signing a new EU-Russia partnership treaty, which expired last year, over concerns with Russia's role in backing separatist regimes in ex-Soviet republics, including the rebel Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Estonia is not a democratic country; it is one ruled by Russophobia," said Sergei Markov, a Russian member of parliament with the ruling United Russia Party. "I warned long ago that it is dangerous to give democratic rights to a country that is not democratic." Like Mr Yakemenko, Mr Markov was placed on a Schengen blacklist by Estonia after publicly admitting links to a Nashi activist who claimed to be behind cyber attacks on Estonian government websites following the Tallinn monument scandal. 

In May, Mr Markov said, he was held for about 30 minutes by German border guards at Frankfurt airport while attempting to travel to Strasbourg, France, where he is an accredited delegate to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. The guards eventually let him travel through. "They let out a few curse words about Estonia," Mr Markov said of the German border guards. "But they had to follow orders, even if they were stupid orders."

Estonia removed Mr Markov from the Schengen blacklist following the Frankfurt incident - sparking a political scandal in Estonia in recent months - though Mr Yakemenko remains persona non grata in the 25 Schengen countries. "It is the sovereign right of any Schengen country to defend itself if it feels it has been violated," an Estonian official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly about the case.

"Mr Yakemenko has not changed his views as far as we can tell. He has not said anything to the effect that what he did was wrong." The official also dismissed Mr Markov's claim that Estonia was somehow acting in an undemocratic fashion with the Schengen bans and that they are in no way meant as "payback" to Russia over disagreements or tensions related to the countries' controversial Soviet past. "It is very important for us to pave the way for normal relations with Russia," the Estonian official said. "We have a very heavy and emotional history, but not for a moment should anyone think this is related to payback. These situations are connected to very concrete activities or statements and are supported by a legal framework."

Kristina Potupchik, Mr Yakemenko's spokeswoman and a former spokeswoman for Nashi, said her boss would not comment on his Schengen ban. "He has no plans to visit Estonia or Europe," Ms Potupchik said. cschreck@thenational.ae