Saturday, December 18, 2004

Russia moving backward

Development since the collapse of communism has been varied in the different countries: some have progressed towards freedom and liberal capitalism quite fast (too fast, in fact, for the European Union, who has tried to unravel some of the reforms in order to impose its own brand of state-driven managerialism); some, like Belarus and the Central Asian states (all those “stans”) have stayed in place, with the difference that more is known about events than before; some, like Ukraine and, perhaps, Romania, are struggling to get free; one country has been moving backward: Russia.

The most recent news from Russia, apart from the ongoing saga of Yukos, which is being destroyed by the government partly to punish its Chairman, Khodorkovsky, for trying to break away from it and for giving money to the political opposition and partly to restore control of the production of energy to the state, has been one of a new law presented to the Lower House of the Duma. This will specify that foreigners who can be shown to have criticized Russia, its people and its culture, which, one must assume, includes the political structure, can be refused a visa without further ado.

One has to accept that a country must be able to choose whether to allow certain people to enter its territory. However, Russia until recently has proclaimed its intention to become an open country like other open countries (give or take complete state control of the media and the abolition of elections on regional level and of individual deputies of the Duma). If this law goes through, all pretence will be finally abandoned.

As a matter of fact, this is not entirely new (or new-old, since this was common practice in the Soviet Union, though there had been no specific judicial base for it). In the spring I applied for a visa to go to a conference organized by the Cato Institute. I wanted a business visa as being easier to get and cheaper – no hassle with hotels, which I did not need as a Russian friend had found me a flat to stay in.

The Institute of Economic Transitions that was supposed to issue the invitation for me to take to the Russian Consulate, explained that all sorts of documentation was needed just to get as far as an invitation. (This had not been true under Yeltsin.) Nothing happened until the last week-end, when the Institute was told that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not issuing visas that week-end as the border was being reconstructed. The Senior Research Fellow I had been dealing with was so stunned that he sent me the exact wording. It seems that somewhere along the line something I had done displeased the Russian authorities. Clearly, they have now decided that it is expensive to keep reconstructing the border: why not pass a law that would once and for all get rid of troublesome foreigners.

Other rules are being tightened. The old Soviet propiska is back. You now have to register with the police if you are more than 72 hours away from your home. Actually, those rules never quite disappeared; nor are they unique to Russia. After all, our own Bill to introduce ID cards (or internal passports) states that we shall all have to register every time we move. (And people actually wonder why anyone should oppose the idea.)

Even in the days of Yeltsin long-distance train journeys (and there are quite a few of those taken by Russians) as well as flights required the production of a passport. When I stayed in a Russian town near the Volga, I could not go into the university library to have a look around, because I did not have my passport with me. The fierce guardian of the entrance hall was stunned that I should even think of such an idea.

At the time one could shrug this off with the words: “old habits, old thought processes die hard”. Now as the rules are becoming tighter and tighter and individuals are allowed less and less freedom, shoulder shrugging is no longer in order.

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