Staunton, January 31 – Over the last five years, something remarkable but often unremarked has been happening in the Baltic states: thousands of Russians, faced with oppression in their homeland, have fled to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where they are not only making a home but working to transform the political situation in Russia itself.
One Russian who passed through Riga suggests that as a result the Latvian capital has become “an intellectual Hong Kong” for Russia much as Hong Kong has for China in recent years and as Riga itself did for the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s (svoboda.org/content/transcript/27354348.html).
Aleksandr Genis says that “the fact that Riga is becoming one of the centers of free Russian culture is an extraordinarily interesting development … one can imagine that similar processes will happen across the near abroad.” Others agree: Artemy Troitsky, a Russian music critic now living in Tallinn, predicts “a mass exodus” of the Russian opposition to these countries (bbc.com/russian/blogs/2016/01/160120_blog_troitsky_forecast_2016).
Troitsky even goes so far as to say that “the center of gravity of [Russian] opposition activity is gradually shifting from Russia to foreign countries” and that this process may give birth to “something like ‘a government in exile,’” a description that recalls some of the views of Russian emigres before World War II.
“It is very doubtful,” Kristina Khudenko and Vitaly Khlapkovsky write for the Delfi new portal, that any such “’government in exile’” will appear “on Baltic soil.” But they point out that “Russians are becoming ever more numerous” in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and say “this is not simply ‘Jurmala dacha owners’ or those who have bought an apartment to gain a residence permit in the Shengen zone” (m.rus.delfi.lv/article.php?id=46978201).
In contrast to most media discussions of the phenomenon of Russian flight, the two journalists provide statistical information from each to back up their arguments, thus highlighting a trend that undercuts Moscow propaganda about the Baltic countries and shows that Russians oppressed at home increasingly view these three NATO and EU countries as safe havens.
In Estonia, 7731 Russian citizens live on the basis of a temporary residence permit. (Those with permanent residence permits are mostly ethnic Russians who have been in Estonia since the times of the Soviet occupation. Since 2013, 3474 Russians have received temporary residence permits there, and 5319 have extended theirs.
Troitsky is perhaps “the most notable Russian ‘émigré’” in Estonia, the Delfi journalists say. But there are many others: Filipp Bakhtin the former editor of the Russian version of “Esquire,” Filipp Dzyadko, the former editor of “Bolshoy gorod,” actresses Chulpan Khamatova, Viktoriya Tolstoganova, and Alisa Khasanova, actor Yevgeny Stychkin, director Boris Khlebnikov “and many others” from the world of art and the media.
Just under a year ago, ecologist Yevgeniya Chirikova who became famous for her defense of the Khimki forest, fled to Tallinn to escape persecution in Russia. Blogger Maksim Yefimov who got in trouble at home for criticizing the Russian Orthodox Church has had political refugee status in Estonia since 2012.
And the list of Russians who have decided to make Estonia their home goes on and on, Khudenko and Khlapkovsky say, with many of them simply seeking to live their lives without fear and others to promote change in the Russian Federation.
Latvia, the Delfi journalists point out, is the Baltic country where this influx has been the most draatic. In 2009, there were only 3351 Russians with temporary residence status there; now there are 13,362. This growth happened because of a Latvian law that gives such status to those who purchase property in the republic.
The growth in the number of Russians settling in Latvia has slowed since 2014 because Latvian legislators have tightened the rules for offering residence permits. “The reason,” the two journalists say, “involves concerns that the newly arriving Russians will become part of ‘a fifth column.’”
What is ironic about that, they say, is that “a large part of ‘the new Russians’ moved to the Baltic precisely for that reason: many of them have been listed as being part of ‘the fifth column’ in their motherland.”
The list of Russian media figures, artists, actors and intellectuals who have settled in Latvia is even larger than it is in Estonia or Lithuania. Many of them continue to issue Internet publications directed at Russians in the Russian Federation. Others are simply prominent intellectuals who do their own work, and many divide their time between Latvia and Russia.
Those who have resettled in Latvia overwhelmingly say that they identify with their new country and would either defend it or flee if Moscow sought to extend the boundaries of Putin’s “Russian world” to include Latvia.
Two cases are currently attracting a great deal of attention: After the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Kseniya Sobchak said that she was considering the possibility of emigrating to Latvia although she has not yet done so. And Dmitry Kuzmin, a Russian LGBT activist, who now lives in Riga because “Russian culture needs bases beyond the country’s borders.”
And in Lithuania, some 4260 Russians sought temporary residence in 2015. (During the same year, 5441 citizens of Ukraine and 3844 citizens of Belarus did the same.). Forty-two Russian citizens have sought refugee status, with nine having obtained it, and five have been offered additional legal defense.
“In a certain sense,” the Delfi journalists say, Lithuania “has become a Mecca for the Russian opposition,” with many activists and journalists who were oppressed after the 2011-2012 protests choosing to live in that Baltic country. Many are operating their own companies, especially in IT, and generally promoting the development of Lithuania.
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