MOSCOW - A toughening of already draconian Kremlin policy on everything from gay rights to political activism is driving a record number of Russians to seek asylum in Europe and the United States, according to multiple Russia experts.
Responding to a recent RFE investigation of data compiled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin attributed the 40 percent uptick in Russian asylum-seekers since 2017, the highest since the earliest years of the post-Soviet era, to a dramatic tightening of restrictions on everything from social media dialogue to personal lifestyle choices.
“Screws are tightening everywhere, citizens are already imprisoned for reposting on social networks,” Oreshkin, a political scientist and fellow with the Washington-headquartered Wilson Center, told VOA.
“In Russia, very few people are completely safe, and those who feel threat for themselves are ‘different’ people — homosexuals or political activists,” he added. “They are not subject to propaganda, they are not worried about what they are told on TV, they care about what is discussed in the narrow circle to which they belong. Therefore, the extreme anti-Americanism that has flourished in the country for several years doesn’t affect them. And if you leave, it’s better to go to the United States.”
Or Europe. Although last year’s 2,664 new Russian asylum applications in the United States represent a 268-percent increase since 2012, when President Vladimir Putin officially resumed power, EU immigration data show Germany alone saw 4,885 first-time applicants, roughly a third of the 12,600 Russians who sought a toehold on the European continent.
While neither USCIS nor EU statistics disclose specific reasons that compel individual applicants to seek asylum, successful candidates must provide proof of an immediate threat to their well-being as a result of discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or affiliation with particular social or political organizations.
“It’s easy to understand them,” said Oreshkin, suggesting the imminent launch of Putin’s third official six-year presidential term provides no indication of change.
“They look at what’s happening with, for example, director Kirill Serebryannikov, or people from Alexei Navalny’s staff, or with gay people in Chechnya,” he said. “They come to understand that the situation will not improve, but only worsen.”
Serebryannikov, director of Moscow’s famed Gogol Center, remains under house arrest on state embezzlement charges that, he and his supporters say, stem from a politically motivated crackdown on Russia’s arts community ahead of the March presidential election.
Supporters of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was barred from the presidential ballot because of a conviction on financial crimes charges he contends were fabricated, were detained Friday ahead of Putin’s inauguration events.
Although restrictive Kremlin policies of 2018 aren’t formally inscribed as legal statutes, Oreshkin said, they are distinctively implicit and nonetheless mandatory.
“No protesting the authorities; no staging ‘impermissible’ performances; no engaging in memorial activities in the North Caucasus and the like,” he said, referring the recent jailing of Oyub Titiyev, the head of the prominent human rights group “Memorial,” which aims to expose atrocities of post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to predominantly Muslim regions such as Chechnya and Dagestan.
“Not everyone is ready for this,” Oreshkin said. “Therefore, people sometimes just run, leaving behind what they have acquired to save their lives.”
Creative class leaving, too
According to Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national polling agency, it is not only asylum-seekers who are looking for a better life beyond Russia’s borders, but emigres of various stripes.
“Even mature, white-collar professionals that privately feel an incompatibility with Putin’s political regime are leaving, however they choose to justify their decision because they care about their children, their professional interests, a more ecologically sound environment, whatever,” he said.
But as Oreshkin points out, all departures come at a long-term political cost for the entire country. While Putin’s Kremlin won’t shed a tear over departing rights activists and homosexuals, he said, the steadily increasing flight of open-minded thinkers risks further marginalization of Russia on the world stage.
“We risk winding up on the global periphery, where bright people cannot find a place,” he said. “Then we will have to say that our people are inventing something in the USA.
“Take Pavell Durov,” founder of the politically embattled Telegram Messenger app, who now resides in London, he said. “How can he go back? There are many such people.”
The Berlin Institute of Population and Development recently called Russia a “vanishing power,” predicting that by 2030 its population will be reduced by 15 million people.
On the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration, Kremlin officials refused to comment on the USCIS data. Putin press secretary Dmitry Peskov waved off questions posed by reporters Friday, uttering something about a “sea of false information” in the world today.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.