A freedom which Putin dearly loves –the right to leave his country
The list of freedoms violated in some way by Putin’s regime is quite long. It ranges from, at the very least, the mitigation of, and at most, the total suppression of almost all democratic liberties known to the world. This regime has significantly restrained the freedom of the media; it has a track record of destroying independent TV channels. The regime has considerably limited freedom of speech by not allowing access to electronic media to either the leaders of opposition parties or authors critical of the regime. Putin’s regime has practically eliminated the freedom of election from all political bodies in the country; it has not permitted leading politicians to be included on the ballots of presidential and parliamentary elections. The regime has also systematically rigged the results of all elections in the country, including the presidential election on March 4, 2012 and others, like the April 2012 mayoral election inAstrakhan. Putin’s regime has made it very difficult for Russians to use the freedom of assembly by either banning free gatherings of people outright or by limiting the number of participants; he has achieved this end through subservient local authorities who have the formal power to allow or ban meetings. The regular and brutal use of special police forces (the notorious OMON) against protesters has scared many Russians away from exercising their right to have political meetings. The Kremlin has regularly refused the registration of political parties, fundamentally undermining again the people’s freedom of assembly.
In addition, Putin’s regime has been far from impeccable in its implementation of religious freedoms. Various Federal agencies and many local authorities continue to restrict the rights of some religious minorities. The international community does not believe Putin’sRussiais either very free or very democratic for many of these reasons; in 2011, Freedom House characterizedRussiaas a “not free country.”
Despite all of this, there is one freedom that is respected inRussiano less than it is in any democratic country in the world: the freedom to move in and out of the country. The Soviet people were completely deprived of this freedom. In fact, the Soviet people’s assignment to either the “travelable” list (this represented only a tiny minority of trusted people who passed KGB clearance) or the “not travelable” list (the majority of citizens, who were suspected of being likely to defect during a foreign trip) was a humiliating ordeal for many. The right to emigrate from theUSSRwas at the center of political life in that country and in the world in the 70s and 80s, until Perestroika changed the game.
Several people accused Andrei Sakharov of paying too much attention to the right to emigrate in his fight for democracy inRussia, which, at the time, only concerned two minorities in the country: Jews and Germans. But Sakharov saw the fight for “freedom of departure”—a term from those times—as the optimal way to start the general offensive for the democratization of Soviet society. For the same reason, my friends inMoscowsaw Jackson-Vanik’s amendment in 1974 as more than simply an act in favor of the freedom of emigration for Jews; it was also an appeal to the Soviet government to join the group of nations that respect freedoms.
Sakharov and all of us were confident —and considering what has happened in Putin’s Russia, here is where we made a mistake—that the materialization of the freedom to leave the country would be incompatible with an authoritarian regime and would wreck the whole Soviet order. The Soviet anecdote about the meeting between the General Secretary and Brigitte Bardot, a highly popular French actress of that time, conveyed this belief well. The French film star begged Brezhnev, whose sympathy for beautiful women was well known, to allow everybody who wants to leave the country to be able to do so. “Oh, you little rogue,” retorted the Soviet leader amusedly, “you want us to be alone”; implying, of course, that if given the freedom to leave the country, all Soviet people would leave Russia, and nobody would disturb the couple in their love affair.
Very few Russians—none who remember Soviet times—could have predicted that of all the freedoms eliminated or limited in Putin’s offensive against democracy, freedom of movement would be left intact. But this miracle happened. While Putin’s Russiahas returned political life mostly back to the Soviet style, the freedom to leave the country has survived. During all 12 years of Putin’s rule, there has not been one case when somebody (who was not incarcerated, of course) was denied the right to leave the country. We do not know of even one case where somebody’s foreign passport was withdrawn. To illustrate this lax control over transportation into and out of the country, consider that even the most ardent of Putin’s foes, like Boris Nemtsov, who was not allowed to appear onscreen at the state TV stations, was not obstructed in his travel to European ski resorts after his fiery speech on the Bolotnaya square on December 24th. After giving his own blistering speech at the same gathering, in which he demanded Putin be ousted from power, the writer Boris Akunin was allowed to go to his estate inFrance. Victor Shenderovich, a champion of Putin’s derogation, was recently allowed to travel to theUSA and earn money with his satirical shows poking fun at Putin. Could you imagine such events in the Soviet past, when even a cautious critical remark about the life of theSoviet Union, made by a Soviet citizen while abroad, publicly or privately, would mark him forever as “not travelable” ?
During his tenure as president and prime minister, Putin’s absolute tolerance of the freedom of departure for Russians has passed many tests. Putin has perfectly endured the ceaseless departure of the best minds in the country. He is indifferent, for instance, to the fact that 15 percent of the graduates of PhD programs leave the country each year, with the majority of them, especially the brightest, never returning toRussia. Similarly, in the last decade, over a hundred thousand scholars and engineers have left their homeland, never to return. It was exactly these people who could have advanced the locomotion of Russian science and industry, and who would have been vitally important for the military-industrial complex.
This is another indication that Putin has little concern for the real geopolitical position of his country in the near future. Note that Stalin—without question a tyrant—was looking toward the future, even when the country was literally bleeding during the war, as he exempted all students in technical colleges as well as all scholars with PhDs from military service. Conversely, Putin, during his numerous public statements, has almost never complained about the loss of intellectual capital. What is more, he seems to want to make the flight of Russians even easier. A key priority forRussia’s EU policy is a visa-free regime for Russian citizens. It is, perhaps, the one thing that Russian leaders want most from the EU.
In his tolerance of emigration, Putin has surpassed the Soviet people’s wildest dreams about living life abroad. Putin went so far as to practically endorse a change of citizenship for Russians. It is difficult to imagine a similar tolerance during Brezhnev’s time, when people who expressed their desire to emigrate immediately became outcasts and often faced tribulations for many years, as “refusniks.” Putin, in speaking about his friend, businessman Gennadii Timchenko (many people link the origin of Putin’s wealth with Timchenko, the head of the oil company Gunvor), did not find anything abnormal in the fact that Timchenko acquired Finish citizenship, commenting only that “it can help his business.” It is nearly impossible to imagine an American or Chinese president hailing one of their powerful CEOs for taking foreign citizenship.
Indeed, as a great advocate of open borders, Putin has no rivals among foreign leaders. While the heads of most of the affluent countries regularly bemoan the move of capital abroad for a variety of reasons (e.g. loss of domestic job opportunities and taxes), Putin has never uttered one word of regret about this practice; rather, he systematically justifies it.
Putin appears nonplussed by the flight of capital from Russia, which increased to $85 billion in 2011, doubling the previous year’s amount. In his meeting with Russian political scientists (February 2012), Putin could not find even mild words of regret for this process, and even praised Victor Vexelberg, one of the moguls closest to him, for his investment in a Swiss company. Evidently, he did not drop Roman Abramovich from his circle of friends either, when this oligarch bought, among his many other foreign assets, the Chelsea football club in England, to the furor of many Russian patriots.
How can we explain Putin’s remarkable love for freedom of movement? Is it due to his devotion to democracy? No. Anyone who understands the state of affairs inRussiawould immediately discard this hypothesis. In fact, the freedom of movement serves the private interests of the Russian leaders and members of the whole ruling class, who wish to have free access to their bank accounts and villas abroad, as well as to Western schools, hospitals and resorts. The life of the Russian elite is so deeply intertwined with the West that Moscow’s biggest fears are no longer reserved for new American weapons—the main concern of the Politburo on the eve of Perestroika—but for the possibility of a ban prohibiting Russian dignitaries to go to the West. The Kremlin considers the proposal made by Senator Benjamin Cardin to impose permanent visa sanctions against 60 Russian officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer tortured and murdered in a Russian prison, to be a very unfriendly act toward the Russian Federation, and one of the thorniest issues in Russian-American relations.
Article 27 in the Russian constitution states that that «everyone who is lawfully in the territory of theRussian Federationhas the right to freely move and choose a place to stay or live.» So far, Putin’s regime, whatever its motivation, has completely honored this freedom.
The developments inRussiarelated to the inauguration of the new president in May 2012 have significantly changed the political climate inMoscow. Putin began his third term as president with a growing aggressiveness against those who have dared, with an increasing boldness, to take to the streets to demonstrate their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his regime. The Kremlin responded quickly, with the arrests of one thousand protesters and with police brutality that has not been seen inRussiain decades. Russian analysts now ponder whether these events will portent another step in the hardening of the regime in the near future. Will the regime punish oppositional activists with by withdrawing their freedom to leave the country and come back again? Ironically, the best hope that the regime will not deprive the Russians of this particular freedom lies in the deep material interests of the ruling elite. These interests might help Putin refrain from the temptation to deliver another painful strike at the opposition so hated by the Kremlin. The probability of closing the borders haunts the minds of not only the people in the opposition but of many Russians who are staying far from the political battles.
It is, of course, strongly in the West’s interests forRussiato remain open, as it has been since Gorbachev’s Glasnost.