20 years under Putin: a timeline

In 2012, nearly half a million Russian citizens were prohibited from going abroad. In the first three months of 2013, the same ban was imposed on more than 140,000 people. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek believes that the Russian authorities have already begun building a new “iron curtain” at the country’s border.



Praemonitus praemunitus is Latin for forewarned is forearmed. That is a very helpful piece of advice concerning relations with any government, and particularly with Russia’s. It is very useful indeed to realize early on what the regime's intentions are. Often, there are many warnings—one only has to know how to appreciate and interpret them correctly. Let us see how this applies to the Russian government’s increasing restrictions on contact with foreign countries, beginning with its treatment of NGOs.

Naturally, the government's attack on NGOs was at first seen as an attempt to limit unwanted public initiatives. It was clear that the government could not accept any criticism. Applying the "foreign agent" stamp to an NGO, which was chosen as a weapon for attack, was neither new nor especially effective. But our government is not known for its imagination and is only capable of clumsy work, so there is nothing new in its behavior.

However, the nature of attacks on NGOs has recently changed considerably. It turns out that the authorities, acting through the Prosecutor's Office, are not only targeting its critics but also unmistakably loyal public organizations. This must mean that the original motives of this campaign have been misinterpreted. What is the point in imposing controls on those who show no antagonism towards the regime, and who avoid engaging in any controversial activity?  What was the reason for labeling as "foreign agents" the Muravyovskiy ornithology park in the Amur region or the “Help for People with Cystic Fibrosis” organization in the Moscow region? What offense did the Moscow School of Political Studies commit in the eyes of the government? The school’s board includes federal ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and Konstantin Kosachev, a member of United Russia party and head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation. Certainly they are not accused of disloyalty to the regime!

The motives of the campaign against NGOs turn out to be considerably broader than assumed initially.

Thus, inspections of, and pressure on, NGOs were not triggered by their being opposed to the government. The reason lies elsewhere. All NGOs have one common characteristic, and that is their relative independence from the Russian government, since they exist thanks to grants from foreign non-profit foundations.  Consequently, attacks on NGOs are not directed against the oppositional nature of these groups, but against their independence; this is an attempt at depriving them of their autonomy and putting them under state control.    The campaign's obvious purpose is to isolate any organization from foreign support and influence. The motives of the campaign turn out to be considerably broader than assumed initially, when the government seemed to be simply getting even with its critics.  We are now witnessing political measures aimed at restoring Russian isolationism. Unfortunately, this is not the only example of a new (old) policy.

The Kremlin's measures—especially legislative ones—aimed at isolating Russia from the rest of the world are being introduced slowly and in a very subtle manner. First of all, the regime creates legal precedents that, in its thinking, will not cause public indignation. One example is the law banning officials from having foreign bank accounts (which will possibly be followed by a law against owning real property abroad). Unfortunately, our society is very enthusiastic about these bans and obviously does not realize that this is just the first step on a long road. Later, it will be much easier to apply this ban to the remaining citizenry on the constitutional principle that all persons should be treated equally before the law.

A similar process can be seen in the growing encroachment on the freedom of movement. The regime restricts the right to travel abroad for some categories of citizens, beginning with those on whom society frowns. As a result society either expresses indifference toward, or even approves these measures. This makes it easier for the government to test certain measures without being worried about public outrage.

According to Article 15 of the Law on "Procedures for Departing and Entering the Russian Federation," a person who failed to fulfill duties imposed by a court has no right leave the country.  A court can prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts connected with taxes or bank credits, unsettled lawsuits, alimony payments or even utility bills. Courts have recently started to apply the ban on leaving the country to those who have debts abroad, such as outstanding health insurance bills, parking and renting fees, traffic violation fines, unpaid goods or services.

It is understandable when a government bans foreign debtors from entering its country. But why would it ban people from leaving?  How can the freedom of movement be legally linked to one's financial obligations? Why, then, also not restrict debtors' other rights that can be important to them, such as the freedoms of speech, conscience and assembly?  The law provides the government with proper ways of debt-collection—from enforcement of an executive title to arrest and seizure of property. In these cases the debtor loses what he or she is supposed to return—property or money. But it is legally inexplicable why one must lose rights that are not in any way connected with property.


In the Soviet times, traveling abroad required special permission from the local Communist Party committee.


The regime is using a part of society to test instruments for restricting the freedom of movement. Today, the ban on leaving the country can be applied to debtors, possessors of important state secrets (implying that as soon as they get abroad they will sell these secrets to foreign intelligence agencies), suspects, persons accused and convicted of crimes, military men and FSB officers (it is implied that they will defect to the CIA).  The list of Russian citizens falling within the scope of restrictive measures could later be enlarged. People with outstanding convictions would be the first to be affected by such measures; then it would be the turn of those who have ever had a criminal record or been accused of an administrative offense; then it would be applied to anyone who has ever belonged to an "extremist" organization or an NGO that has been branded a "foreign agent."   All this could end up with a full-size "iron curtain" and a situation when the only persons able to go abroad will be those who have procured a recommendation from the local committee of United Russia party.

A long road always begins with a single step. Last year, 469,000 people were prohibited from leaving Russia. In the first three months of this year, the same ban was imposed on another 141,000 people. In a number of cases, the courts issued orders prohibiting people from leaving the country in absentia; a person would find out about this only when arriving at passport control and having his or her foreign travel passport confiscated.

This all fits into the overall depressing picture that includes the fact that courts now have the right to impose unthinkable fines, incommensurate with the average salaries of Russian citizens, for violating rules on public rallies and the law on NGOs. The legislation closing Russia’s border is being slowly changed. The regime is creating new legal and political preconditions for restoring the "iron curtain," perhaps not to the same extent as in Soviet times—but then it does not really need to. Discreet measures aimed at creating a well-adjusted "iron venetian blind" are already noticeable.

The only explanation for the Russian government’s persistence in seeking the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment law is the possibility of new emigration restrictions.

It is no coincidence that last year, the Kremlin was incredibly persistent in urging the U.S. Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment with regard to Russia. According to this amendment, which came into force in 1975, permanent normal trade relations could be extended to a country with a non-market economy that was a U.S. trade partner only if it complied with freedom of emigration requirements. With respect to Russia, the amendment had for a long time been inoperative and had no practical significance, but formally was still in effect. Thus, the only explanation for the Russian government’s persistence in seeking the repeal of the law is the possibility of new emigration restrictions and fear that the law would become effective again in the future.  Unfortunately, the Kremlin succeeded in getting the Jackson-Vanik amendment repealed with regard to Russia, though the price for it was the adoption of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. The latter caused many heated disputes both in Russia and in the U.S., but anti-corruption sanctions against criminal Russian officials are already becoming effective. Similar laws may also be adopted in Europe. Hopefully, one will never regret having paid for the "Magnitsky laws" by abandoning the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Attempts at bringing together different details of political life into a single overall picture may be greeted by accusations that one is engaged in creating conspiracy theories. This is inevitable. The future is not obvious and will be determined by a colossal number of causes. Everything that was examined above can be considered as one possible version of the course of events. On the other hand, one should not underestimate the details. As for conspiracy theories, there is a good joke:

A herd of cows is grazing in a green pasture. One cow whispers to another:
“I heard that we are being fattened up, so they can kill us and eat our flesh.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” answers the other cow. “It's just a conspiracy theory. Eat your grass!”

It would be a good thing if we do not become like a herd destined for slaughter.