Unpacking the controversy around Russian tourists in Indonesia

A pagoda in Bali, Indonesia. Bali is known as a top international tourism destination, though it has recently been shaken up by a wave of Russian tourists. Image by Anastasia from Pixabay

Russia has been invading Ukraine for over a year, but Indonesia is seeing its own form of invasion as thousands of Russians flee to Bali to escape the war. Tensions between Indonesian citizens and the Russian residents who call the archipelago home have boiled over in recent months after numerous cases of bad or illegal behavior from Russian nationals have strained relations between the two and forced officials to take action.

Most of these visitors have settled on the popular tourism hotspot, Bali, Indonesia. Frustration has been brewing on the island over the last few years — even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — as several high-profile incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic led to clashes.

Some of the documented examples of bad behavior from Russian nationals include people refusing to wear helmets, masks, or shirts when riding motorbikes and getting into altercations with police as a result; two social media influencers filming a pornographic video on Mount Batur — a holy site for the Balinese people — and releasing it to the site Pornhub; a couple posing naked and having a photo shoot in front of a sacred tree in Bali; a couple illegally farming and selling marijuana out of their home — a crime punishable by death in Indonesia; a TikTok influencer filming a “prank” where she enters a supermarket with a painted-on mask, despite strict mask-mandates at the time; an influencer driving his motorbike off a pier and into the ocean, possibly damaging the marine ecosystem; a man who allegedly hit a pedestrian while driving under the influence of alcohol; countless visa violations, and more. 

Most recently, a Russian tourist was deported from Bali after taking a shirtless photo on Mount Batur

One Balinese police officer who chose not to be identified told CNN, “Whenever we get reports about a foreigner behaving badly, it’s almost always Russian. Foreigners come to Bali but they behave like they are above the law. This has always been the case and it has to finally stop.”

Though it is a relatively small number of Russian nationals causing the problems, they have helped create a gulf between Russian residents and Indonesians. 

A state crackdown

The Bali governor has had enough. 

At least four Russian tourists were deported from Bali last month, and on March 12, Bali Governor I Wayan Koster requested that the Indonesian Ministry of Law and Human Rights end visas on arrival (VOA) for Russian and Ukrainian nationals, which allow visitors to enter Indonesia with no prior visas or paperwork.

Currently, Indonesia is one of the few countries that Russians and Ukrainians can easily enter. More than 77,500 Russians arrived in Indonesia between September to January 2022. In 2023, over 20,000 entered Indonesia in January alone. 

The move has sparked intense debate on Bali's social media, with some celebrating the news while others are complaining about Russophobia and mistreatment. 

Many critics lament that some Russian visitors seem to refuse to acclimate to Balinese society — often isolating themselves with other Russians. Others complained that some visitors seem unwilling to follow basic rules or social contracts. 

Others questioned why Ukrainians were included in the request to end the VOA as well as Russians.

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Indonesia Vasyl Hamianin had similar feelings, saying in an online press conference that he was disappointed that Russians and Ukrainians were lumped together in the request.

This is very offensive to my feelings as a Ukraine citizen, because generalizing Russians and Ukrainians and blaming them for something that is not proven.

To try and quell some of the increasing tensions, People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) speaker Bambang Soesatyo, is pushing back against negative stereotypes of Russian tourists in Bali. He released a written statement on March 30, asserting that not all Russian tourists in Bali are “brengsek” (Indonesian slang for “jerk” or “disrespectful”) and disobedient to rules and regulations.

Undocumented workers

In response to the increase in Russian visitors, Indonesia and Russia officially signed an extradition treaty on March 31 to help combat transnational organized crime. The Balinese Provincial Government has also announced the formation of a task force to help better identify those working illegally.

The move comes after increased concern about visitors working illegally in Bali. Recently, officials have identified instances of Russian nationals illegally making and selling license plates, offering motorbike driving lessons; teaching yoga, meditation, and surfing classes; giving tattoos and haircuts, and more. Indonesia has strict laws about what jobs foreigners can perform and does not allow foreign visitors to perform services that can be done by local workers. Some Russian nationals are also buying large numbers of motorbikes and properties and then renting them out to other Russians above market rate, taking business from local entrepreneurs.

Zee Putro, a Balinese business owner who leads trekking tours, told Al Jazeera: “The last time I hiked to the top of Mount Agung volcano, I saw many Russians guiding other Russians without local guides even though local guides are required by law. The Russians seem to know everything about the mountain. I think they scaled the mountain before with local guides and remembered all the routes, safety issues, wind factors, timing and dangers. It’s sad because many local guides have no work.”

Amid the simmering tensions, some citizens have taken matters into their own hands and are calling out foreigners who are working illegally or disrespecting local customs online via social media. 

One Instagram account Moscow.Cebang.Bali (Moscow Chapter Bali) has become an outlet for frustrated individuals, as people can submit screenshots of people advertising their work illegally or disrespecting local culture. 

A screenshot of the Moscos.Cebang.Bali account.

The original account with over 34,000 followers has been permanently banned, but a replacement soon popped up. The account ironically “promotes” those who are illegally advertising their work online. Though they call out foreigners of all nationalities, the most common perpetrators are Russians. 

In an interview with Bali Coconuts, a local news organization, the person who runs Moscow.Cebang.Bali explains why they started the account. The person has stayed anonymous for safety reasons as they regularly receive violent threats.

In addition to hearing stories from friends who feel unsettled because many jobs had been taken over by foreign nationals, I started this account because I was fed up with seeing Instagram ads by foreigners who blatantly promote their businesses, which, by the way, are clearly illegal. Advertising things like tattoo businesses, tours, motorbike rentals, laundry services, cosmetologists, yoga classes, photography, driving lessons, cults, and even poker betting — they have the audacity to promote it all. … There is a “Russian Bubble” where [Russian nationals] prefer to shop with “their own people” via Telegram, carrying out transactions using cryptocurrency or the Russian ruble.

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