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EU debates whether to take in those fleeing Russia

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The European Union is divided over whether to take in Russians who are fleeing their country. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would be calling up men with military experience to fight in Ukraine. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to talk about the divisions in Europe over this. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: Rob, this is a big point of contention, so help us understand. Which countries are open to allowing Russians in, and which are not?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the dividing lines on this issue are, for the most part, geographical and historical. Countries that border Russia or its ally Belarus and/or countries that were once part of the Soviet Union have limited the entry of Russians into their countries. And that includes the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Poland and, in the most recent case, Finland, which essentially shut its border to Russians last Friday. Meanwhile, the big economies of the EU, like Germany and France, are more open to giving either political asylum or some form of humanitarian status to Russians who have fled for the same reasons they gave Syrians and Iraqis refuge several years ago for humanitarian reasons.

SUMMERS: OK, and so for the countries who don't want to open their borders to Russians, what sorts of reasons are they giving?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, one reason given especially by the Baltic states, who have a lot of experience dealing with Russia, is that opening the borders like this could allow more pro-Putin operatives to enter the EU. A more common reason - and one we heard much of this summer, though - is that EU states should not be giving visas to Russian citizens so that they can enjoy their holidays in various parts of Europe while their government is waging a war in another part of Europe.

I spoke with Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, about why former Soviet states are particularly against allowing more Russians into Europe. And she says a lot of this has to do with their own struggles against Russian leadership in the past.

JUDY DEMPSEY: The Czechoslovaks threw out the communist regime. The Poles since the late 1970s and '80s kept protesting. They didn't escape to the West, but they built an opposition, and they were actually strong enough to actually push out the Communist Party. So essentially, change did come from within. Are the Russians going to take this on board?

SCHMITZ: And Juana, it should be noted here that fighting against the Soviet leadership in the 1980s, as she just talked about, is a bit different from trying to take down Vladimir Putin's government and its technological surveillance state today. But there's definitely a sense among Eastern Europeans that Russian citizens should be doing more to fight their own government from within.

SUMMERS: So the European Union held meetings yesterday to try and iron out some of these internal divisions on this issue. Rob, did they get anywhere?

SCHMITZ: No. They're sort of at an impasse over this. EU leadership, including European Council President Charles Michel, seem open to giving asylum to Russians fleeing their country. But there is fierce opposition from the EU's eastern flank, and there does not seem to be room for compromise. And whenever the EU is not able to make a unified decision on something like this, it's usually kicked down to the member state level to take their own actions, and that's what we've already seen. You've got most of the member states bordering Russia closing their borders and a smattering of larger western EU states preparing to open them. And just to be clear, there are no direct flights from Russia to the EU thanks to the EU sanction, so for any Russian to get to these larger EU states requires flights to at least a third country, which for most of them is not an easy task.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.