In Russia, the Doors Are Closing

How — and why — Russians are losing their freedom to travel abroad.

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Within days of the explosion of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, 2015, and with the official inquiry into the event still open, President Vladimir Putin imposed an indefinite ban on all air travel between Egypt and Russia. Not even a month later, when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter jet, the Kremlin issued another open-ended ban, this time on all charter flights to Turkey.

Russian officials presented these sanctions as a necessary step against terrorism, and as a geopolitical display of control and power. But when viewed in the context of other restrictions on foreign travel for Russian citizens, and of the Kremlin’s ramped-up promotion of domestic tourism, they tell an altogether different story.

The main goal of these measures appears two-fold. First, they are designed to limit the exposure of the Russian population to the outside world at a time when the Kremlin is at pains to maintain the facade of resilience and victory-against-adversity it has crafted through its media. Second, they aim to redirect a significant portion of the nearly $54 billion Russian tourism cash flow back into the country to help prop up its struggling economy.

This is a relatively recent development. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the notoriously harsh Soviet travel regulations. The new 1993 constitution guaranteed Russian citizens the right to freely leave the country, and to return just as freely. With this opening of the floodgates, millions of Russians rushed out to meet the world. Throughout the 1990s, hundreds of thousands left the country permanently, while countless others flooded the global resort ecosystem. Seven decades of isolation had ended, and Russia seemed to be integrating itself into a newly globalized world. Many assumed — quite reasonably, it seemed at the time — that this process was irreversible.

The freedom to travel was allowed to continue throughout Vladimir Putin’s first two presidencies and even during the challenging economic period following the 2008 financial crisis. Over the past five years, however, the screws have been steadily tightening, as the Kremlin has undertaken a range of increasingly comprehensive steps to limit the ability of its citizens to freely leave the country, in part by reducing their overseas travel options.

The first signs of change came in late 2010, after a network of Russian sleeper spies was exposed in the U.S. and the U.K. on a tip-off from a former colonel in the Russian Intelligence Service who defected to the U.S. In an effort to avoid any more high-profile embarrassments, the Federal Security Service of Russia issued a decree barring foreign travel for its staff, except in emergency situations.

A few months later, the Federal Bailiffs’ Service banned another large category of Russians — debtors — from leaving the country. The ban covers people who owe taxes or have evaded loan and mortgage repayments, alimony, or civil fines. There are rumors that it will soon expand to include draft dodgers and even parking ticket delinquents. The Service has since developed a comprehensive database of debtors, reported to cover over 1.4 million people. Thousands of Russians on the list are routinely turned back at airports and train stations.

The next notable shift happened after the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In April 2014, in response to the political and economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and the EU, the foreign ministry issued an unusual recommendation strongly advising Russian citizens against traveling to the U.S. and some 112 nations with which Washington has extradition treaties.

Soon afterwards, foreign travel was restricted for personnel of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, and many other civil servants, including police officers and firefighters — nearly 4 million people in total.

These bans expressly contradict Russians’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of travel, and are estimated to cover 5 percent of the country’s adult population — an unprecedented number in Russia’s modern history.

Those who could no longer travel abroad were strongly encouraged to use their vacation time to support the ailing tourism industry of the recently acquired Crimean peninsula. In June 2014, it was reported that the Federal Tourism Agency, Rosturizm, was sending telegrams to state companies “suggesting” that they purchase Crimean holiday vouchers for their employees. The vouchers were to be purchased at the companies’ expense, and the telegrams were rumored to have been received not only by state-run corporations, but also by some of Russia’s largest private companies.

These measures led to a mass abandonment of pre-booked foreign vacation packages. The resulting decline of outbound tourism — estimated at 22 percent of the annual average — is thought to have directly contributed to the bankruptcy of a large number of Russian travel agencies in the summer of 2014. Despite such drastic measures, the 2014 tourism season in Crimea was widely reported to be one of the worst on record, with the region losing 30 to 50 percent of its regular seasonal visitors.

These tectonic shifts in the travel landscape were compounded by the 2015 bans on air travel to Egypt and Turkey. These countries’ affordable all-inclusive packages historically made them two of Russians’ favorite beach vacation destinations, an obvious choice for lower middle class and middle class families. The decision to impose the indefinite bans, even when justified by the threat of terrorism, was met with surprise and concern by most Russians.

A week or so after the restriction of flights to Egypt, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich met with panicked representatives of Russian travel firms. They pleaded for the state’s support, noting that the ban could cost the industry $200 million. Dvorkovich announced that the government would not compensate companies directly, but would give them support to help expand the domestic tourism arena, particularly in Crimea and Sochi, the Black Sea resort town recently rebuilt for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The statement was tantamount to a declaration that the Russian state was willing to sacrifice a large portion of its tourism industry to achieve a broader strategic goal — reorienting the market towards domestic travel and significantly limiting Russians’ access to inexpensive overseas tourism.

Concurrently, throughout 2015, many international airlines began pulling out of the Russian market. Global budget carriers Easyjet and Air Berlin ceased their operations in Russia. Lufthansa, SAS, SWISS, Brussels Airlines, Czech Airlines, Finnair and a number of other airlines significantly reduced the number of their flights to the country, with more expected to follow suit. Their departure, motivated largely by Russia’s declining economic prospects, has led to a dramatic fall in the frequency of overseas flights and variety of destinations even as ticket prices have soared.

This is particularly true for major regional hubs, such as St. Petersburg, Omsk and Perm, where direct connections to popular foreign vacation spots such as Italy, Greece, and Spain have virtually disappeared. A growing number of destinations are now reachable only through costly connections in Moscow.

The scandalous October 2015 bankruptcy of Transaero, Russia’s leading budget airline, has contributed to the turmoil. Transaero was the main competitor to the unofficial state carrier, Aeroflot, and the circumstances surrounding its demise are mired in controversy. Though it had accumulated significant debts, the company’s financial status was rumored not to have been as dire as publicly stated, and its quick fall from grace prompted many to speculate about the role of Aeroflot — and the Kremlin — in sealing its fate. Transaero’s assets were swiftly divided between the other major national players, and its disappearance cleared the path for the increasingly domestically-oriented Aeroflot to occupy over 50 percent of the market.

In a clear indication of the growing trend toward self-isolation, the Russian government has ramped up its campaign of promoting internal tourism, with the state media increasingly emphasizing Russians’ patriotic duty to visit native resorts, and highlighting the health and safety risks of overseas travel. The message has been echoed by many of the country’s senior officials, such as Anna Popova, the head of the consumer protection agency, who has repeatedly warned Russians against traveling abroad, lest they be exposed to hepatitis, HIV, bird flu, Ebola or plague. Oleg Safonov, the head of the state tourism agency, went as far as to compare Russians who decided to holiday out of the country to parents choosing to invest in the well-being of someone else’s children rather than their own.

The response of the Russian public to this changing environment appears divided. The state-owned Public Opinion Research Center reports that 67 percent of Russians believe that the government should focus on strengthening domestic tourism rather than on ensuring their safety abroad. Nonetheless, the Russian blogosphere and social media are ablaze with fears regarding potential further bans, including the imposition of exit visas, with many characterizing the current situation as a return to the USSR and a signal to leave the country before it’s too late.

The trend towards further restrictions is expected to continue. State channels have already been reporting that the government is considering limiting travel to the EU in response to the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks.

The ultimate outcome of what may, at a glance, appear to be a coincidence of unrelated phenomena is that Russians continue to grow more isolated by the day, at a time when contact with the outside world is most urgently needed, and when — during a severe economic crisis — the Kremlin is especially keen to keep them convinced of the alternate reality the state media has crafted.

Popular Russian journalist and political activist Oleg Kashin recently observed that freedom of travel is the “most easily understood and very precious freedom, all the more precious as several preceding generations of Russians were deprived of it for decades.” It remains to be seen whether the Russian public will be willing to sacrifice it in exchange for the perceived safety of their state.

Photo credit: MAX VETROV/AFP/Getty Images

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