A quarter of a century ago, freedom of travel was among the most amazing developments of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. In the years since, this freedom has remained uncompromised – even as most supposedly guaranteed civil rights have been reduced to hollow declarations. But now, in 2014, the right to travel is rapidly being rolled back.
In the late 1980s the Soviet Union was opening up. Gorbachev proclaimed that the Soviet Union shared “common human values” with the West, and contacts with those outside the country were no longer seen as a threat to national security. The Soviet people, who had for decades been locked behind the “iron curtain”, were suddenly free to travel abroad – to pick their own destination, to buy their own tickets, to visit friends and family, to attend academic and artistic events, and even to challenge the state monopoly on foreign trade. The right to free travel was legally codified in 1991 and then, after the Soviet Union fell apart, Russian federal law decreed that a “citizen of the Russian Federation cannot be restricted in his right to leave the Russian Federation”.
When Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, the Kremlin administration took tight control over the political sphere and steadily encroached on civil liberties, such as media freedom, freedom of assembly, the right to due process and fair trial, and so on. But throughout the 2000s, travel abroad was left unhampered, whether for business or for fun. The Russian people enjoyed the various opportunities of the globalised world, even as the Kremlin, and Putin in particular, engaged in anti-Western rhetoric and insisted that the West wanted to do harm to Russia.
As soon as Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, occasional anti-Western rhetoric gave way to relentless and scathing anti-Western propaganda.
As soon as Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, occasional anti-Western rhetoric gave way to relentless and scathing anti-Western propaganda. Contacts with the West were once again deemed suspicious. New legal norms and practices were introduced, aimed at shielding the Russian people from the allegedly deleterious influence of the West – and at making them even more dependent on the Kremlin’s whims and will. Western families were banned under law from adopting Russian orphans. Nongovernmental organisations that received foreign funding and pursued “political activity” (a form of action that was very loosely defined) had to register as “foreign agents”. Hundreds of them had their operations disrupted by intrusive inspections from the prosecutor’s office and other government agencies. The United States Agency for International Development was forced out of Russia. This autumn saw the closure of an American academic exchange programme for Russian high-school students that had been launched in the early 1990s. Foreign ownership of media assets has been radically restricted. Russians who have dual citizenship must register with the government.
Russian officials who had bought real estate properties or opened bank accounts abroad were informed that their foreign assets have become illegal. Late last year Putin called for a crackdown on Russian companies registered in offshore jurisdictions. In October this year a bill on “deoffshorisation” was submitted to the Duma.
In an alarming development, a wide range of civil servants have been denied their constitutional right to travel abroad. This includes officials of the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Defence, as well as of the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, and the Federal Migration Service. According to some estimates, the total number of government employees essentially banned from leaving Russia amounts to about 4 million, roughly one-fifth of all Russian tourists. This restriction has taken a heavy toll on the Russian tourist industry, which is already suffering from an abrupt fall of demand. But apparently, the sharp decline of the tourist industry is an acceptable cost to the Russian government, since its major concern is insulating the nation from the Western adversary.
Rumour has it that employees and managers of state companies under Western sanctions have been strongly advised not to leave Russia.
Just a couple of days ago, Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin demanded that federal lawmakers not use their diplomatic passports as and when they chose. They were ordered to hand in their passports, so that from now on, legislators' travels could be kept under control. Rumour has it that employees and managers of state companies under Western sanctions have been strongly advised not to leave Russia.
Last week, speaking at the Valdai Forum, an annual international meeting between political experts and journalists and Russian officials, Putin denied that Russia has shifted towards isolationist policies. “We do not intend to seal ourselves off,” he said, “this is not our goal. Moreover, I believe this would only do us harm.” Responding to a question about Kremlin pressure on nongovernmental organisations that receive foreign funding, he emphasised that the measures are not about “shutting the country off”. “This is self-defence,” Putin said.
The line between self-defence and isolation is hard to demarcate, but the restrictive trend on foreign travel is unmistakable. Those in Russia who care about freedom of travel are now asking each other whether – or how soon – the restrictions will be extended to cover ordinary Russians as well.