RuSSian Agency Investigated After Calling Crimea an 'Occupied Territory'

Russia's consumer protection agency may face criminal
charges for a tourism memo that urged Russian vacationers to show
caution when traveling to "occupied" Crimea, and advising them
to request permission from Ukrainian authorities to visit the peninsula,
which Moscow annexed last year.

The Prosecutor General's Office said the memo by the
Consumer Rights Protection Society "contains appeals for abetting
the activities of a foreign state, international organization or their
representatives, aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the
Russian Federation," according to a statement released Monday.

The case has been sent to investigators to determine whether
criminal charges should be brought, the statement said. The section
of the Russian law cited in the statement as the grounds for possible
criminal charges allows for punishments that can range from community
service to five years in prison.

The consumer rights society's memo warned Russians that
"under international law," Crimea remains part of Ukraine, and urged
tourists to follow a set of precautions when visiting the "occupied
territory" and to obey Ukrainian laws.

"Ukrainian law envisages a procedure for entering
and leaving the occupied territory, and tourists who violate it may be
subject to criminal responsibility, up to a prison term," the memo read.
"Out of consideration for their own security, tourists are advised
to observe Ukrainian laws and cross the border only with the permission
of Ukraine's border service in the Kherson region."

If any problems with Ukrainian authorities appear, Russian
travelers may demand their money back from tour operators for having
failed to warn them about the "possible risks of being on an occupied

While the warning reportedly caused Russian vacationers
to call travel agencies with questions about the potential hazards
of Crimean travel, the government's media watchdog Roskomnadzor received
orders from the Prosecutor General's Office to block the consumer
protection agency's website, Interfax reported.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov called
the memo "absurd," since "Crimea, as is well known, is a region of the
Russian Federation," news agency Interfax reported. Peskov declined,
however, to comment on the memo's suggestion that Russian travelers
should go through official Ukrainian routes to Crimea, saying that
"recommendations on the choice of travel itineraries is outside
the Kremlin's jurisdiction," according to the report.

Most countries and major international organizations
consider Crimea part of Ukraine, but Moscow insists that the peninsula's
"reunification" with Russia was legitimate, and has recently denounced
the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International
Atomic Energy Agency, for listing in its annual report a nuclear site
near Crimea's Sevastopol as being in Ukraine.

The memo has already stoked a "panic" among Russian
tourists, the nation's travel industry association spokeswoman Irina
Tyurina said, Interfax reported.

Amid Western sanctions imposed against Moscow for annexing
Crimea and amid Russia's economic downturn, foreign travel has become
too expensive for many Russians, while the government has also been
urging citizens to spend holidays on the peninsula.

After the memo came out, "clients have been calling tour
operators since 9 a.m., expressing complaints, fearing to go
on vacations," Tyurina was quoted by Interfax as saying. "Considering
that Crimea is not the most popular domestic travel destination among
Russians, this notice has stoked panic."

She also said that the consumer rights group had no business
warning Russians about criminal charges they supposedly may face
for violating Ukrainian border laws, Interfax reported.

"Russian tourists will not have any problems with entering
Crimea," Tyurina was quoted as saying, adding that travel warnings were
a task for the Foreign Ministry and other government agencies, and "none
of them have made statements like that."

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