Exit Visas for Common Russians?

Russian blogosphere periodically becomes awash with rumors that the authorities will introduce Soviet-style exit visas soon to limit one freedom that  many common Russians continue to enjoy in a pretty much unrestricted way (unless you have unpaid debts or work for a power agency or have access to state secrets).
The latest wave of speculations on that issue rose when Kommersant reported that top brass of Russian Railways (RZhD) and other major state-owned companies had recommended to its managers to avoid travelling to countries, which have extradition treaties with U.S. (which would be pretty much most of the world –as over 100 countries have such treaties with U.S.). As if that were not enough, Duma speaker Naryshkin was quoted a day later as demanding that State Duma deputies hand in their diplomatic passports in between official trips to avoid “abuse.” Kommersant’s claims – that state company managers would have to follow suit set by employees of so-called power agencies and refrain from travelling abroad –  were eventually denied by the likes of RZhD whose head Yakunin has been barred from visiting US and EU by, well, US and EU respectively.
But the online rumor-mongers do have a point, which is: sooner of later both uniformed and plainclothes public servants are going to ask without obtaining individual permission: if we cannot travel abroad (which they can’t), then why common Russians should be able to do? The hardline proponents of exit visas can actually point to the economic benefits of such a restriction. The latter would generate billions of dollars in additional revenue for domestic tourism industry, contributing the badly needed percentage centesimals to Russia’s GDP. Russians were projected to spend $43 bn abroad in 2013 while Russia’s GDP was $2,097 bn that year).
Paradoxically, such a restriction would be welcomed by some of Russia’s liberals, namely Inozemtsev and Lebedev. In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, the two make the following startling argument: “One potential measure — curtailing the West’s social openness — could help mobilize the rank-and-file citizens in the developing world by showing them what they have to lose. As a historical analogy, consider the Soviet Union, which collapsed, in part, because those who were discontented with the regime had no freedom to leave. Today, however, such mass migration is possible — leaving behind stronger bases of support for corrupt regimes. Limiting this freedom of movement, while extending support to domestic anticorruption campaigns, can spur systemic change.”
The duo’s proposal to West to shut its borders to the outside youth is not completely irrational. In fact, it might have been inspired by the tacit arrangement in modern-day Russia, which is that if you don’t like the way the country is run, you can always leave.   Yet, I doubt, that barring younger Russians from travelling to West would significantly increase pressure on the Kremlin, prompting it to fight corruption or change the way the country is run, to say less of collapse of the ruling system, which the two authors may be hoping for.
For one, if it were a single largest factor behind disintegration of USSR, it was the inefficiency of the Soviet planned economy rather than inability of its citizens to travel abroad (if in doubt, read Gaidar’s book: here is my review of factors that Gaidar identified). (I’d also note that my person experience doesn’t support the duo’s theory. When I was as a 2nd year student of a Moscow university, I was invited to come to U.S. to study, but I gave up on trying to do so, when I came to a Soviet passport office to see the long list of people waiting to apply for an exit visa. The whole experience did upset me, but didn’t make me a rebel.)    Secondly, why would governments of U.S. and other Western countries, which benefit immensely as inbound migration of talented youth improves their nations’ human capital, want to stop the brain drain?
Regardless of the duo’s arguments, one trend is certain, however: the greater the chill in Russia’s relations with West, the more popular the idea of restricting ability of common Russians to travel to that part of the world, if not abroad in general, may become in the eyes of the conservative part of Russia’s ruling elite who argue Russia can turn its back on West and focus on developing ties with China and other Asian countries. 


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