Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow to Block Five Million Russian Citizens from Traveling Abroad

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 27 – The Moscow and Western media have devoted enormous attention to the few dozen Russian officials who have been blocked from visiting a few countries in the West, but they have largely ignored the terrifying plans of the Putin regime to keep some five million Russian citizens from travelling outside the Russian Federation.

            In a post on Ekho Moskvy today, Vladimir Ryzhkov, an historian and liberal politician, says that “the explosive growth in the number” of Russians whose own government is preventing them have traveling abroad is “an important part of the Kremlin’s new course of gradually self-isolation” of Russia (echo.msk.ru/blog/rizhkov/1328544-echo/).

            The foreign travel ban Moscow has imposed “on Russian ‘siloviki’” helps generate more “anti-Western paranoia” and a broader crackdown on independent thought, he suggests, because “cultivating the image” of Russia as “a besieged fortress, surrounded by enemies,” is easier if such people are “deprived of the opportunity to see the surrounding world with their own eyes.”

                Moreover, Ryzhkov argues, it reflects an effort by the powers that be to limit brain drain and capital flight, both of which represent an increasing threat to Russia’s rulers.

            In Soviet times, “the entire population of the enormous country” was prevented from travelling abroad.  “The border was under an iron lock and key.”  The elimination of that restriction was a major step forward after 1991, Ryzhkov continues, but “now a restoration of these Soviet practices is proceeding step by step.”

             The first to be placed under these new restrictions were FSB officers, who lost the right to constitutional right to travel freely in 2010.  Then, employees of the magistracy were restricted in the same way as were those who owed taxes or bank loans or had failed to pay for certain other services.

Now, Ryzhkov says, “the possibility of introducing such a ban” on others is being discussed, including restrictions on all those who fail to pay traffic fines, draft resisters, or those with access to classified information. Already as of April 2014, the total number of those who can’t leave Russia has been estimated to be four million people, “the overwhelming majority of whom have no relation to secrets or issues of national security.”

That  number means that “almost five percent” of Russia’s adult population – one in every 20 citizens – now is banned from leaving the country, something “unprecedented for the entire post-Soviet history” of the country.  And the actual number almost certainly is even larger than that, given that it certainly includes many who work in the defense establishment.

The policy is not only offensive and wrong but likely to be counter-productive  given the value Russians place on gaining the right after 1991 to travel abroad.  Ryzhkov notes that in the 1950s, millions of East Germans fled their country to the West. The response was the Berlin Wall, the isolation of the GDR, and the latter’s ultimate collapse.

In the course of the last 20 years, some four to five million Russian citizens have left the country, “including 20,000 doctors of science.  “Given growing economic difficulties, the tightening of screws and the restrictions on freedom,” it is likely to become ever more problematic for the Kremlin to hold the rest. But bans are clearly steps in that direction.

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