Staunton, March 21 – For five centuries, Russian leaders have been obsessed about emigres, defectors and others who have gone abroad and broken with the Russian regime, fearful of the ability of such people to influence Russians within Russia and even, as was the case with Lenin and the then-miniscule Bolshevik Party, to overthrow the existing system.
Thus, it is no surprise that the Moscow media has devoted so much attention to a Vilnius meeting of the Russian opposition in emigration (rufabula.com/articles/2016/03/17/forum-of-free-russia iarex.ru/articles/52354.html, kasparov.ru/material.php?id=56EA35B857BD0 and mustoi.ru/na-forume-svobodnoj-rossii-vstretilis-politemigranty-iz-karelii/).
Sometimes this Russian coverage recalls the anecdote about the old Jew in the shtetl who read anti-Semitic Russian newspapers because he liked to see “how powerful we really are.” But even if the emigration seldom has the influence the Kremlin fears it has, Moscow’s fears about that often drive Russian policies.
Not only has the Putin regime and its Chechen executors killed some of those in emigration it fears, but it has taken actions to reduce the ability of Russians to go abroad and possibly join the ranks of the emigration against Moscow by restricting foreign travel by many in the security services and debtors.
Now, it is preparing to take another step which may spark another upsurge in the numbers of Russians who choose to live abroad but which certainly presages an even more repressive Russian regime at home than the one Russians have unfortunately had to adapt themselves to under Vladimir Putin.
Last week, Vladimir Makarov, the head of the Russian interior ministry’s Chief Directorate for Combatting Extremism, said that his ministry wants to block foreign travel by those suspected of committing extremist crimes, have not been cleared by Russian courts or have not yet served their sentences (sova-center.ru/misuse/news/lawmaking/2016/03/d34062/).
As the SOVA Analytic Center pointed out, the interior ministry official did not say “at what stage of consideration this initiative is now.” But Makarov’s words are chilling: They clearly imply that the Russian authorities may block people merely on the basis of suspicion and not even as the result of charges and judicial action from foreign travel.
Given the expansive and flexible definitions of extremism and the general failure of Russian courts to exonerate anyone charged with extremism crimes, the adoption of such a law would cast a dark shadow on almost anyone in Russia whose positions are at odds with whatever line the Kremlin takes.
Some Russian activists have already concluded that they have no future in that country as long as Putin and his system are in power and have moved to the West. Others facing the prospect that they may be stripped of the opportunity to travel abroad via this latest Moscow move seem likely to reach a similar conclusion and leave sooner rather than later.
On the one hand, that will reduce the ranks of the opposition in Russia itself, something Putin and company almost certainly will welcome, although those ranks may continue to grow as more Russians see just what the Kremlin leader and his entourage represent and how they are taking away from Russians one of the rights many of them see as a positive result from 1991.
And on the other, such a trend will mean that the numbers of Russian opposition figures in places like Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, London and New York will grow and provide important new information and insights for the West about the nature of the Putin system if the West is clever enough to pay attention to them.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the first Russian emigration attracted relatively little attention in most countries, with Poland being a major exception. During the Cold War, more Western countries including Britain, France and the US paid far more attention to this important source. The question now is whether the West will exploit this source of information in the future.