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Russian NGO in trouble for warning tourists about risks of visiting occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash
‘Public Control’, a Russian consumer rights society, has aroused anger in Moscow and could face prosecution over its entirely accurate description of Crimea as ‘occupied territory’ and its warnings of the legal ramifications of any trips undertaken without Ukrainian permission.

‘Public Control’, a Russian consumer rights society, has aroused anger in Moscow and could face prosecution over its entirely accurate description of Crimea as ‘occupied territory’ and its warnings of the legal ramifications of any trips undertaken without Ukrainian permission.    

By Monday evening the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office was threatening prosecution and the website had been blocked.  President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov had earlier responded claiming that “Crimea, as we know, is a region of the Russian Federation and therefore the posing of the question is absolutely absurd”.   Deputies of Russia’s State Duma also joined in, calling for the head of the NGO to be forced out of his position and calling the advice “enemy provocation”.  If it had not already been designated a ‘foreign agent’ under Russia’s repressive legislation, it would doubtless be facing that fate as well.

The truth that hurts

All of the bluster and threats cannot conceal the fact that the NGO’s warnings were fully justified.  The head of Public Control [Russian: "Общественный контроль"], Mikhail Anshakov reports that they have already had several dozen people turn to them after being refused Schengen visas.  Although EU authorities do not spell out the reasons for turning people down, Anshakov notes that it is not difficult to find out that people recently visited Crimea.  He says that Russian travel agencies are not doing their job by not warning tourists, a

Anshakov stresses that their document did not provide any political comment, only an outline of the risks tourists face and why. 

The following is a summary of the document entitled Advice for consumers when visiting occupied territory

1.  Legal status

According to the current international Agreement between the Russian Federation [RF] and Ukraine on the Russian-Ukrainian state border, the territory of Crimea, including Sevastopol, is a part of Ukraine.  “The territorial integrity of Ukraine within existing borders is also confirmed by a number of other current international treaties and agreements.  Five are given, including the charter of the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS].

Yes, amendments were made to Article 65 of Russia’s Constitution, adding Crimea and Sevastopol, however Article 16 § 2 of that same document stipulates that constitutional provisions may not contradict the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional order, and this states clearly (Article 15 § 4) that “generally accepted principles and norms of international law and RF international agreements are a component part of its legal system. If RF international agreements stipulate different rules from those envisaged by the law, then the rules of the international agreement take precedence. »

The document goes on to cite the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe which clearly stipulates inviolability of borders and territorial integrity of states as fundamental principles of international law.  It quotes the section (IV under Principles guiding Relations between participating states, regarding territorial integrity, and gives the following in bold: “No such occupation or acquisition will be recognized as legal.” 

Russia has not abrogated the above-mentioned agreements which recognize Ukraine’s territorial integrity, nor has it declared war against Ukraine or signed a peace treaty which could legitimize the annexation of Crimea. Ukraine has not renounced sovereignty over the territory of Crimea.

The inclusion of the republic of Crimea and city of federal significance Sevastopol in the makeup of the Russian Federation is therefore a legal fiction. According to international law the said territory is under occupation, which has specific ramifications, including when carrying out business activities, including consumer relations.”

They go on to explain some of the risks about which they believe it their duty to inform consumers, and point out that tourist agencies as a rule do not inform their clients of problems that could arise.

2.   According to Ukraine’s Law on Temporarily Occupied Territory, foreign nationals who do not require visas to visit Ukraine (including Russian nationals) may visit Crimea but only on condition that they passed into Crimea from existing checkpoints through the state border and with the relevant stamps in their passport or immigration documents.

Criminal liability, with sentences of up to 3 years imprisonment, have now been introduced (via Article 332-1 of the Criminal Code) for violations of this stipulation, as well as other penalties listed.

A tourist visiting the occupied territory of Crimea without receiving the relevant permission from the Ukrainian authorities is thus violating Ukraine’s law on the status of occupied territory. In view of this sanctions could be applied either by Ukraine, or by other UN member states. In certain cases criminal prosecution and placement on the international wanted list are possible.”

Public Control advises Russians “needing to visit Crimea” to observe Ukrainian legislation and receive permission from Ukrainian border guards and cross into Crimea from Kherson oblast (in mainland Ukraine).  It informs that if the tourist agency did not provide information about these requirements, then the tourist is entitled to compensation should problems arise, including prosecution by Ukraine or other states.

Beware of cruises!

Item 3 warns that any entry of Crimean ports is covered by Article 332 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code which envisages liability for organizing illegal crossing of Ukraine’s state border. “Although it is the captain of the vessel who bears criminal liability, problems could arise for passengers as well over illegal crossing of the state border.”

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office informs that 97 criminal cases have been initiated over such actions (see, for example, Ukraine makes first arrest of boat illegally entering Crimean port ).

Public Control warns that a fun cruise could thus go badly wrong, and warns people to check with the tourist agency whether permission has been received from Ukraine.  “If there is no permission, we recommend rejecting such cruises”.

Buyer beware!

Item 4 points out that any purchase of real estate in Crimea without this being carried out in mainland Ukraine could result in the action being deemed unlawful seizure of other people’s property and a criminal offence.  Russians, they warn, could also simply be cheated if any deal is carried out without checking Ukraine’s database.  The NGO advises Russian nationals to not try to purchase property, or if there is a burning need, to do it solely from mainland Ukraine and in strict compliance with Ukrainian legislation.

Public Control does not mention the numerous cases where property and businesses either owned by the Ukrainian state or by Ukrainian nationals have been seized by the occupation authorities. 

Consumers buying goods in Crimea should also bear in mind that since the largest producers of consumer items and services have been forced to comply with international sanctions and terminate their business in Crimea, goods allegedly carrying their trademark could well be fakes, or illegally delivered.  For this and other reasons, guarantees and service contracts are likely to not be available. 

They advise consumers to avoid any such purchases unless absolutely required, and warn that any failure to inform the buyer of such restrictions is an infringement of their rights.

They ask consumers to bear in mind their advice and recommendations and if necessary contact their specialists.

Their advice is, unfortunately, unlikely to be seen by most Russians since the Prosecutor’s Office and Roskomnadzor (Russia’s ‘media regulator’ increasingly fulfilling the role of censor) have already ensured that the site is blocked.

The material was for very obvious reasons unwelcome to the Russian authorities who are already faced with a second disastrous tourist season, general reports regarding the economic consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the extension of EU sanctions.

Hurt it might and should, but every word was true.


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