Saturday, November 28, 2015

Closing Doors: Why Russian Travel Restrictions May Signal a Return to Soviet Days

by Nomad

By the use of tighter travel restrictions and fear tactics, The Russian government may have a few very good reasons for trying to spoil its citizens' vacations abroad.  

The Freedom of Movement
St. Augustine once said:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
The liberating effects of leaving your native land and seeing how others live -if only for a short time- are well-known.
The freedom of movement is, in fact, a human right, recognized in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This right to travel covers not only inside one's own country but to other countries. Furthermore, the right pertains not just to visiting and holiday-making but, if desired, the right to change one's residence permanently.
The provision in the UDHR states:
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
  • Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
In that respect, internal borders should be as limited as possible and external borders should act as a regulator of the flow but not a block.
Like a lot of things in the UDHR, there are quite a few limitations to the real-life applications.  It's is, indeed, hard to imagine how this freedom of movement could be applied strictly or even in a practical way.

Immigration and emigration will always be considered a part of national sovereignty. There will always be zones in every country where people cannot travel. There will always be costs imposed that in themselves limit this freedom.
Moreover, persons charged with or convicted of crimes are  denied this right.

With so many exceptions, you might even wonder about the wisdom of including such a right in the first place. Why was this article deemed necessary you might ask?

Isolation as a Public Policy
At the time of the ratification of the Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was held in the iron grip of Stalin.

In the post-war era, there was a closing of doors and a tight control of internal and external borders. The formation of the Warsaw Bloc required absolute control over the borders and the movement of citizens. While the USSR talked of liberation in the Far East and South America and Africa, closer to home, the freedom of its own people and that of satellite countries was quickly being reduced.

So, this particular UN declaration, and especially the provision for free movement was something that brought many unhappy nyets inside the Communist Kremlin  and the Warsaw Bloc. Mass mandatory resettlement was a Stalinist method of political repression implemented by the Soviet Union. It is no surprise the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Bloc (like South Africa and Saudi Arabia) had, from its inception, abstained from signing on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The idea of a free-floating population- even if applied in a limited way- undermines the autocratic control. If North Koreans could exercise this human right freely, the whole country would be emptied in a year. 

Back in the dreary Soviet days, many citizens of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Bloc tried to leave their respective countries for greener pastures in America or free Europe. The building of the Berlin wall a decade after the UNDHR was the ultimate invalidation that basic right of movement. 
*   *   *
The Soviet Union is no more- abandoned to "the ash heap of history"- and today Russians are, at least in theory, allowed to roam wherever they like. The Great Wall is long gone.

That was supposed to herald a new age for the Russia people. That's what seemed to happen at any rate.

Once the Soviet Union fell, Russia devised a new constitution and the right to travel was, in line with other human rights legislation, permitted to its citizens.

According to Article 27 of that constitution
  • Everyone who is lawfully in the territory of the Russian Federation has the right to freely move and choose a place of stay or living.
  • Everyone may freely exit the territory of the Russian Federation. [Every] citizen of the Russian Federation may return onto the territory of the Russian Federation without hindrance." (The emphasis is mine.)
In addition to its 1993 Constitution, Russia recognizes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(fully) and the European Convention of Human Rights (with reservations). Importantly, the recognition of these international law instruments takes precedence over national legislation according to Chapter 1, Article 15 of the Constitution. 

In other words, no law passed by the Russian parliament can overrule the international human rights agreements the government has already signed.

However, the right to movement as stated in the Russian constitution isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
As we shall see, Russian authorities are stretching this itsy-bitsy loophole to the point where the freedom of movement is limited to fewer and fewer numbers. 

Social Engineering and Exploitation of Fears
While winter getaways to Turkey or Greece and other hotter and brighter places have in the last 20 years proved to be extremely popular, not everybody is happy about all this merry-making in the sun. 
If too much exposure is damaging to the pale Russian skin, some people in power in Moscow think too much exposure to how the rest of the world lives can be equally dangerous for the Russian mind.

Tourism out of Russia has fallen between 50 and 70 percent this year, according to Irina Tyurina, spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Industry Union.

That decline is not purely accidental. There's a bit of Soviet-styled social engineering at work. Here's an example.  
The Washington Post reported last year that the head of Russia’s main health watchdog agency advised Russians to forego vacations and other travel over the winter holidays so as not to expose themselves to infection during the global Ebola crisis.
The head of Rospotrebnadzor, a governmental consumer protection agency, Anna Popova warned:
“These holidays would be better spent in Russia. Given the unstable situation in the world for infectious diseases, it is recommended to reduce all possible travel and vacation abroad.”
Reducing travel is one possible way to reduce the spread, but then the only recorded death of Ebola in Russia came from exposure in a laboratory in at the Vector laboratory at Novosibirsk in Siberia. Popova must be aware that one is much more likely to die of an infectious disease, like multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, in a Russian prison than by vacationing outside of the borders.

Incidentally, Rospotrebnadzor has become one of Putin's effective tool, especially when it comes to targeting foreign franchises doing business in Russia. Some claim this was all part of Putin's revenge in light of Western sanctions.

That same month as the Ebola warning, President Putin also advised Russians to be very very careful if they traveled to the US. Not because of any contagion per se, but because of the possibility of being detained and arrested.
He claimed that U.S. law enforcement agencies were actively “hunting” for Russians in other countries to convict in the United States on “usually dubious charges.” 

If that wasn't enough to keep the Russians at home, there's another reason. 
The Metrojet Flight 9268, which broke up over the Sinai and took the lives of over 200 passengers- most likely the result of a terror attack- has provided another opportunity for Putin to encourage his citizens to stay home. 

Not too coincidentally, the Russian government - only a couple of weeks after the attack- began pushing a domestic substitute to the land of pyramids, spitting camels, and the murk of the Nile. The newly annexed land called Crimea
That's, some would say, opportunism in its boldest form. 

Debtors Go Nowhere
All of these fear tactics couldn't hold a candle to the main killer of Russian holidays. The collapse of the Russian currency. With many vacation package prices tied to the US dollar, the weak rouble has left many Russians to do anything more than dream of tropical beach frolics.

The rouble has lost 30% of its value as of last year. making even the most cut-rate package vacations much more expensive. (Imagine if you were one of the lucky Russians that took out a home mortgage in foreign currency.)
According to a Russian source, more and more Russians are struggling to repay their debts, "amid falling incomes, caused by the country's economic recession."

As any Wall Street whiz kid will tell you, calamities are often are generally viewed as opportunities, especially in economics and politics.
That's where the Russian government under Putin's leadership comes in. Ignoring the Russian constitution, the Duma two years ago passed new travel bans that could spoil most holiday plans.
Under Russian legislation, anyone with more than 10,000 rubles ($156) in unpaid bank charges, alimony, community service payments, fines or taxes is banned from leaving the country if a creditor makes a claim in court.
As a result of this law, some 1.7 million Russian were will be trapped at home this winter The year before, 1.2 million were unable to frolic in warmer climes.
Said a president of a credit collection firm:
“It's likely that in 2015, a record number of travel restrictions over unpaid debt will be imposed.”
Experts report that in total, an estimated 9 million Russians have more than 10,000 roubles in unpaid debt and may be affected by the law. 

Lawmakers are now discussing travel bans for draft-dodgers and people who habitually fail to pay fines for traffic violations.

Opponents of the law say that the travel bans could be enlarged to include those who might have access to state secrets, are serving in the military, are defendants in a criminal case or have submitted false information on official documents.

Back in the USSR
The new travel bans, Putin's critics have declared, represent the "Kremlin's new course of self-imposed isolation." That's not much of an exaggeration when you look at the numbers.

According to one analysis, the number of people prohibited from leaving the country has now reached almost 5 percent of the total population, an unprecedented number in Russia's post-Soviet history. 

The Russian leader clearly has good reasons to discourage his people from going abroad. Firstly, the economy is in a shambles.
Russians' real wages by nearly 10 percent compared to 2014, according to February data from state statistics service Rosstat. Money and people are leaving the country, according to The Economist.  Every bit of money spent outside the country is a loss for the Motherland. 

Travel restrictions are not only for vacationers. They also include those who plan set up residency abroad too. The law was probably aimed originally at preventing citizens from running up enormous debts and then fleeing the country. Yet, $150 dollars is hardly enormous.  

The Snowden Lesson and the Unchallenged Narrative
Government officials face even tougher restrictions on travel. The travel bans on the government employees are handed down either through official orders or through recommendations and are enforced for even the most minor employees.
The Snowden affair may have been a public relation dream come true for Russia, but it's definitely not something Putin wants to happen in his country. 

Secondly, there are political aspects. It is much easier for a leader to create your his own narrative when citizens cannot see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears things that contradict that version. As Samuel Johnson wrote:
“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”
The reverse is also true. The regulation of traveling can also be used to regulate the imagination and thus the perception of reality.
Putin is extremely popular with the ultra-conservatives in his country who see any influence from outside as destructive to Russian culture, the state structure, and party ideology.

This would include challenges to the narrative which Putin promotes. One top priority of Putin's narrative is to increase their anti-Western paranoia. and to present Russia as a besieged fortress. 
If it worked for the Soviet Union, Putin is willing, it seems, to dust it off and put it to work for post-Cold War Russia. Vladimir Putin is, after all, a product of the Soviet era in every respect.

Keeping Russians down on the farm is one crude solution. There's also a more practical consideration. 
Apart from a desire to protect the country from criticism and the "corrupting influence of the West," authorities might also hope to stem the outflow of money spent on such popular tourist destinations as Europe, Turkey, Egypt and the U.S. — thereby forcing people to spend more money at resorts in Crimea and Sochi.
In other words, Putin is simply following the tried and true methods of the former Soviet Union, despite whatever the Russian Consitution had once promised.