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Tensions Grow Over Russia's 'Secret' EU Travel Blacklist

FILE - Planes are seen on the tarmac at Moscow's Vnukovo airport.
FILE - Planes are seen on the tarmac at Moscow's Vnukovo airport.

The thing about secret lists is that you don't know if you're on one — until you find out you are.

Germany's conservative lawmaker Karl-Georg Wellmann learned this lesson the hard way. Arriving in Russia for an official visit last month, Wellmann ended up spending the night in the Moscow airport transit zone.

Much to his surprise, Wellmann says, airport officials informed him he'd been banned from entering Russia until 2019.

"We wanted to have political talks with senior members of the government, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's advisors," says Wellmann. "As a result, they were canceled, and German-Russian relations are strained."

So, too, are Russia's relations with the wider EU: Wellmann is just one of 89 officials from all over Europe who ended up on what, until recently, had been a secret Kremlin travel ban list.

High-profile members include Britain's former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, Secretary General of the Council of the European Union in Brussels Uwe Corsepius, and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Response to sanctions

Kremlin officials say the move is a response to Western sanctions against Russia following Moscow's annexation of Crimea last year. The EU also imposed travel bans against 151 Russian and Ukrainian citizens over the issue. The United States has issued its own travel ban list of Russian and Ukrainian officials over Crimea.

EU officials are expressing outrage over the Russian list for its secrecy, calling the Kremlin travel bans "arbitrary, unjustified" and "without explanation or transparency."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier captured the general European mood with a statement of dismay aimed at Moscow.

"At a time when we're trying to defuse a bitter and dangerous conflict in the heart of Europe," said Steinmeier, "this does not help."

News of the blacklist comes as a negotiated cease-fire in Ukraine appears in danger of collapse amid a new outbreak of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine's army.

It also arrives ahead of a key EU vote this year on whether to renew sanctions against Moscow.

Seeking to defuse tensions, the Kremlin says a list of banned individuals had since been sent to EU states — on the condition of confidentiality.

Or so it seemed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later accused EU officials of violating that privacy agreement intentionally. The Europeans, he said, were playing for headlines.

"We handed over the list under the European Union's request on a confidential basis and it immediately began leaking into the press," said Lavrov.

The foreign minister noted that the European Union, which usually doesn't comment on leaks, was now commenting on this one "with exuberance" and accused the EU of a violation of diplomatic etiquette.

Playing games

But, Feodor Krashenninikov, a political analyst based in Yekaterinburg, Russia, tells VOA that Lavrov is merely feigning outrage as the Kremlin is trying to make news.

The whole point of keeping the list secret, Krashenninikov argues, is to catch unknowingly blacklisted European officials — such as Germany's Wellmann — who would otherwise steer clear of Russia, creating what Krashenninikov calls "scandals for the sake of scandals" and, more importantly, "an opening for a future deal."

"The most important reason for the blacklist is to make a trade," Krashenninikov says. "Soon you'll hear Moscow say, 'Our travel ban list bothers you and your travel ban list bothers us. Let's get rid of them both.'"

And yet it appears more sanctions, rather than a grand bargain, are in the offing.

The European Parliament says it will now restrict access of the Russian delegation to assembly meetings.

The Kremlin, in turn, is promising an appropriate response.

Yet Moscow-based analyst Vladimir Frolov calls the whole blacklist scandal "a tempest in a teapot."

He notes that while keeping the travel blacklist secret was a political miscalculation that bordered on stupidity, he believes the Europeans are fundamentally overreacting.

The reason the Kremlin doesn't have to clarify who is on its no-entry list or why, Frolov says, is simple enough: unlike the U.S. or EU — where no-entry bans can be challenged in court — Russia's legal system offers no recourse.

Besides, he adds, Russia, like it or not, ultimately holds the sovereign right to deny entry to whomever it pleases.

"They can blacklist Santa Claus if they want to," he said.