EU divided on welcoming Russians fleeing military draft

AFP - OLGA MALTSEVA

Men of fighting age have been leaving Russia in droves since President Vladimir Putin’s decision to partially mobilise Russian reservists. The EU is trying to get a common position on whether to open its doors, but for the moment it's up to individual member states – and they're deeply divided.

Increasing numbers of draft-age men have fled Russia since last Wednesday when some 300,000 reservists were called to fight in Ukraine.

Many of those resisting the draft are heading to Georgia, Serbia and Armenia.

Georgian authorities on Tuesday reported that the numbers arriving had nearly doubled to around 10,000 per day.

The numbers travelling to the EU are small. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine member states curtailed travel from Russia, banning direct flights and toughening up visa rules.

Finland is the only member state that has kept its land border open with Moscow.

On Friday, it announced it would “significantly restrict the entry of Russian citizens” after the uptick in arrivals following Putin’s decree.

Close to 17,000 Russians crossed the border into Finland over the weekend, Finnish authorities said.

EU split

EU members are split between a willingness to support opponents of Vladimir Putin and fears over security.

According to the European Commission, the EU stands in solidarity "in principle" with Russians who have the courage to oppose Vladimir Putin's regime.

It advocates a common EU position and stresses that international law requires all asylum requests to be treated.

But this common position must "take security concerns into account".

In addition, since the EU suspended the short-stay visa facilitation agreement with Russia at the end of August, each of the 27 member states issues visas on a case-by-case basis.

On Monday, EU ambassadors began trying to thrash out a common position in Brussels – and it promises to be complicated.

Call for openness

Germany has indicated it is open to taking in Russian conscientious objectors.

“Deserters threatened with serious repression can as a rule obtain international protection in Germany,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on Thursday.

"Anyone who courageously opposes Putin's regime and thereby falls into great danger, can file for asylum on grounds of political persecution."

German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann echoed similar views: "Anyone who hates Putin's path and loves liberal democracy is welcome in Germany," he said on Twitter.

Berlin has already taken in more than 400 opponents of the Kremlin in recent months, says RFI’s Berlin correspondent Pascal Thibaut.

Ukraine’s ambassador, Andriy Malnyk, rebuked Berlin's softer line: “Young Russians who don’t want to go to war must finally overthrow Putin,” he said.

But European Council President Charles Michel argued Europe should follow Germany's example.

"I call on EU states to do like Germany and welcome Russian deserters," he told French TV channel LCI, encouraging Russian citizens to disobey the Kremlin's mobilisation order.

In an interview with Politico on Friday, Michel said the bloc should show an “openness to those who don’t want to be instrumentalised by the Kremlin”.

French 'contacts with Russian citizens'

France has made no official declaration, but its position seems broadly alligned to that of Germany.

Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna said there was "a need to answer the desire of huge parts of the Russian population to express their views and sometimes to leave Russia and come to the rest of the continent.

"This is one of the reasons France, Germany, and many other states decided not to close down completely the possibility of issuing visas to Russian citizens," she said during a press conference at the end of the UN general assembly in New York.

"We want to sanction the oligarchs, we want to sanction those that support the war effort … but it is necessary to allow contacts with Russian citizens".

On Friday, senators from the French Greens party called on France to welcome Russian “opponents” and “deserters” who are refusing to be drafted.

“A large part of the Russian population refuses to take part in a deadly war it disapproves of,” they wrote, in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

After President Putin issued a decree on Saturday increasing penalties for Russian deserters to up to 10 years behind bars, François Bayrou, head of the centrist MoDem party, said France had "a duty" to offer them asylum.

“Every time there are conscientious objectors within states, the duty of democratic countries is to welcome them,” Bayrou told franceinfo on Monday.

'Security risks'

Eastern states bordering Russia are not on the same wavelength – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have said they will not offer refuge to any Russians fleeing the call-up.

The Latvian Foreign Minister has cited security risks and refuses to consider the draft dodgers as conscientious objectors since many of them have not protested against Russia's murder of Ukrainians.

“Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then,” Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, wrote on Twitter.

“There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go [to].”

Estonia’s Interior Minister, Lauri Laanemets, told local media, “We should not offer protection to deserters.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo was also hawkish.

“I think it cannot be the intention in Europe now to say ‘yes’ to all Russians who are conscientious objectors, or who do not agree with the regime in Russia,” de Croo told national TV on Sunday.

“Today we hardly hand out any visas to Russians, and I want to keep it that way ... It would be a difficult signal in relation to the many Ukrainian refugees that we have taken in our country to suddenly start taking in Russians as well.”