The apartments that lead to Schengen

Following a trend that has intrigued local authorities and real estate agents, more and more Russians are buying apartments without ever setting foot in them. The reason for this strange behaviour is that owning a home in Estonia makes it easier to apply for a Schengen visa.

Published on 28 September 2011 at 15:40
Vaula |  Schengen bound. A house for sale in Estonia.

Having paid out 10,000 euros to a property agent, a Moscow resident becomes the owner of an apartment in Ida-Virumaa [northeastern Estonia]. He is just one of the many Russians, who following their purchase of property in Estonia, which they do not need to occupy, can take advantage of an Estonian visa to go shopping in Paris.

Located in the region of Ida-Virumaa, Voka is a small seaside hamlet, which is home to about 1,000 people. Four large buildings, each containing 24 apartments, have now sprung alongside its traditional houses. However, for the moment the four single men living in each of the wings of one of the buildings are the development’s only residents. Almost all of the other apartments have been sold to Russian citizens, who have yet to cross the border to visit or spend holidays in their new homes.

“The other day, I spoke with a property agent in Jõhvi [a nearby town], who told me that the apartments in Voka had been snapped up Russians”, says Ursi Joost, who manages one of the buildings.

Clearly for visas

Most of the apartments have remained empty, generating an accumulation of unpaid bills. Of course, there are some Moscow residents who do in fact enjoy spending their holidays by the sea, in the region noted for its natural beauty, and for the fact that local people speak Russian.

But there are also those, who have left immediately after buying their homes without even closing their windows for the winter. Finally, there is a third group of Russians from Saint Petersburg who are delighted to have a second home in Voka, where they come for the weekend, and where their children have more room to run about than they do in their native city. But they remain the exception rather than the rule.

In Jõhvi, where a two room apartment costs about 8,000 euros, the Russians rarely spend more than 10,000 euros. Rasmus Lumi, the former Estonian consul in Saint Petersburg, who was expelled by Russian authorities last march, is today the managing director of the Estonian Foreign Ministry’s consular service. He believes that Russians buying in Voka, are clearly doing so to obtain visas. “However, that is just an assumption which we can neither rule in or rule out.”

“Legally our hands are tied”

The fact of owning property in Estonia does not necessarily guarantee that visas will be granted. However, Russian citizens can assume, not without some justification, that if they become home owners in Estonia, they will find it easier to obtain visas, especially if they have a clean record in the Schengen Area, and if they regularly come to Estonia to look after their property. However, Lumi points out: “If on the contrary we find that someone is abusing the system, they won’t be able to obtain visas so easily in the future.”

The diplomat adds that it is possible to verify how many visas were granted in the wake of property purchases, because they are recorded in a special register. “We have raised these issues with MPs, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and with police and border security services, but there is not much that we can do,” points out the mayor of Ida-Virumaa, Riho Breivel.

“Legally our hands are tied. In itself, there is nothing wrong with wealthy Russians buying apartments in Estonia. But this is no longer what is happening. The worst cases are marked by unpaid debts for building charges (…) when the new home owners from across the border simply disappear, causing problems for other residents.”

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