Return of the Refuseniks: Is Political Emigration Back in Russia?

We're not talking about how many liberal-minded people have emigrated so far, but rather about the fact that there are no prospects of a legitimate liberal force taking shape in Russia. So emigration, in whatever form, becomes a private affair rather than a political issue. Russian emigres based in the West easily integrate into local communities, and stop having any tangible influence on Russia.

Sergei Guriev, a former rector of the Russian School of Economics who is currently living in self-imposed exile in Paris, told The Financial Times in a recent interview that his departure had been prompted by the actions taken by Russia's Investigative Committee after Guriev provided expert analysis in the Yukos case and responded to anti-government activist Alexei Navalny's call for public support of the opposition. This was followed by the announcement of former world chess champion Garry Kasparov at a news conference in Geneva, where he was accepting an award for his efforts as a human rights activist that he would not return to Russia any time soon for fear of reprisal for his opposition activities. But are there grounds to say that Russia is experiencing a sixth wave [1] of political emigration?

That's a difficult question. But I don’t think you can claim that there is a real wave of political emigration, because, strictly speaking, there is no political opposition in Russia. On the other hand, Sergei Guriev's case shows that there is, indeed, a new and rather specific outflow of active and independent individuals of various status and career levels. These people feel that it is impossible for them to continue living in Russia. There may be some economic and social factors behind this trend, arising from the general stagnation in the country, and it may also be a consequence of the atmosphere of cultural reaction that we are currently seeing and a result of the government’s current policies, giving these people the sense that they have no prospects in Russia.

Of course, there are all kinds of threats, but they apply mainly to political activists, of which there are few, by definition. The country is widely perceived as heading toward an impasse, forsaking its future and turning away from the rest of the world for some unknown reason. Naturally, that kind of feeling may be unbearable for people who are spiritually, emotionally and intellectually experienced, especially in this era of rapid global development. To be sure, the rest of the world is full of problems and threats. But out there, they can be confronted directly, whereas in Russia, they normally hide behind the backs of repressive government bodies. Wanting to try your luck elsewhere is part of human nature, especially when you run the risk of an encounter with the Investigative Committee.

What threat could be serious enough to make Guriev and Kasparov want to stay away from Russia for "a while", to quote them? Regarding Kasparov, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin made a clear statement, saying: "What I'm going to say will make Kasparov happy or maybe sad. He has never been summoned by the Investigative Committee for questioning in any capacity. There is absolutely no interest in investigating him."

There is no point in discussing statements by Investigative Committee officials, especially public statements. For a typical intellectual, what Guriev has already endured is a big enough threat - police searches, the confiscation of correspondence, and so on. And for a person of his standing, a person with no connection whatsoever to the shadow economy or to even quasi-criminal activities, there is something very strange in this. He simply doesn't wish to communicate with the police and investigators on their terms. This is understandable. And this is probably the case for Kasparov, too.

Leaving aside the politics of the conflict between the Kremlin and opposition intellectuals, what sets this situation apart is the surprisingly high level of disrespect for human dignity in general and for thinkers and cultural figures in particular.

Even Stalin in some cases paid tribute to people who contributed to the country's cultural advancement. The most outrageous thing - which Guriev stopped short of mentioning in public - is the fact that the professional community did not come out in support of him. Even in the Soviet era, under Brezhnev, it would have been hard to imagine a situation where the rector of a major institution of higher education was subjected to a police search and his or her colleagues kept quiet. There would have been letters to the Central Committee, open statements by academics. That this did not happen is perhaps what Guriev found the most upsetting and alarming of all.

Is Guriev's sudden departure an indication that a new case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky is imminent, or does it mark a new stage in the fight between different elite clans?

All negative theories seem equally plausible these days. There is infighting in the upper echelons, and it’s truly anything goes. All sides are eagerly using their connections to the repressive government bodies against each other. In this atmosphere of slight administrative insanity, a new prison sentence for Khodorkovsky is a possibility. The boundaries of what’s possible have expanded dramatically. Things that seemed impossible just a couple of years ago today have become quite likely.

What are the possible implications of the departure of a major liberal economist [like Guriev] on the fate of Russia's liberal movement?

There is no liberal movement in Russian politics today. No one is offering this kind of alternative. Players like Yabloko, which is liberal in name, in fact play the role of spoilers in the existing system. They imitate a liberal position rather than embodying it. As for Mikhail Prokhorov's Civic Platform, it is extremely ghettoized, and cannot really operate as a political party.

We're not talking here about how many liberal-minded people have emigrated so far, but rather about the fact that there are no prospects of a legitimate liberal force taking shape in Russia. So emigration, in whatever form, becomes a private affair rather than a political issue.

According to Kasparov, Guriev's case is a clear illustration of Russia's near complete transition from one-party rule to one-man dictatorship. He said, "It takes a political party a lot of mental effort to exercise its diktat, trying to legitimize its state-like role. The dictatorship of a person requires only executioners and barking dogs." How do you respond to this statement?

In the atmosphere that reigns today, there is no lack of strong words or vivid imagery. The problem is that society needs some concept of what is going on, and it is primarily up to opposition leaders make this happen. But no such concept has been developed yet.

The president's power in Russia has no visible boundaries, nor any public objections. There are no longer any restraints on presidential power. The Duma doesn’t perform this function. Executive authorities have become a subdivision of the office of the president, and that goes for the judiciary and investigative bodies as well. Such a system may be described as a dictatorship, but that doesn't explain the absence of checks and balances. Also, we are dealing with a society that itself aspires to dictatorship or, at least, does not object to it,
condoning and even supporting the persecution of minorities - political, cultural, sexual and religious.

Minorities are denied the right to exist as part of Russia's political landscape today. The concept of the “overwhelming majority” publicly espoused by the president simply leaves minorities out, so they can either join the majority voluntarily or come to terms with the idea that they have been made part of it without their consent.

All attempts to express one's individuality - cultural, religious, or sexual - are inevitably met with unbelievable and unprovoked aggression.

Russian society is aggressive, and it demonstrates a sadistic attitude to minorities. Anyone of us may find ourselves in the minority, all the more so since there is now no way to express one's independence without running the risk of being perceived as an unwanted minority.

It has been argued that under Putin, political emigres are either "Chechen opposition members (it's no secret that in the North Caucasus, the situation is extraordinary), or businesspeople facing persecution, in which political motivations are hard to separate from someone’s desire to appropriate their business, or crusaders against corruption who have messed with the interests of some high-ranking officials, or national Bolsheviks or other radicals." Would you agree with such a statement?

We can and must study the structure of the Russian diaspora abroad. But we need to be aware that today, individual political emigres present no real political force. Here we can only talk about all kinds of lobbies - ethnic lobbies (Chechens) or business lobbies (Russian entrepreneurs who have settled abroad, but continue their transborder transactions). No significant political party-type structure has emerged so far. Russian emigres based in the West easily integrate into local communities, and stop having any tangible influence on Russia.

According to Kasparov, a priority of his work is to promote the “Magnitsky list” in the United States as well as in Europe. But does Russia benefit from the activity of so-called human rights activists? Don’t their campaigns actually undermine the country's authority and its image in the international arena?

An opposition member and a human rights activist are two different things. By confusing the two, we encourage the emergence of selective legal protection, which is unacceptable. Kasparov is, undoubtedly, an opposition politician, even if he chooses to position himself as a human rights activist. In the eyes of the world, a human rights activist is a public figure rather than a politician, someone who defends people regardless of their political affiliation.

The problem with the Magnitsky list is that it’s the result of shady dealings. It is an attempt to mix a human rights issue (Magnitsky's rights were indeed violated) with a political act, and a piece of legislation with an extrajudicial ruling. On the whole, the situation is similar to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, and interests only the business or political lobby in the West. The Magnitsky list is not an example of human rights activism.

As for the damage caused to the state's authority, this is a propagandistic notion from last century. Any government views criticism as an attempt to undermine its authority. As I see it, the media are - and should be - a weapon for undermining the government's authority. If they don't, they aren’t doing their job.

Can the decision of Guriev and Kasparov to emigrate be attributed to their personal complicity? Perhaps their decision to emigrate for political motives are nothing but a publicity stunt, an act aimed at stirring up anti-Russian sentiment, given that Russian political emigres in the West have turned into major newsmakers now.

In this case, we are seeing the effect of official propaganda, which presents emigres as a self-interested and immoral minority. The government tends to interpret and describe the differences in society like the difference between good health and illness. This is a very dangerous path, one taken by a number of extremist ideologies in the 20th century. We can hardly argue that Berezovsky, for example, benefited from his self-imposed exile, swapping his business empire back home for the position of a middle-tier newsmaker serving the Western media.

A number of opposition members have expressed the view that the “political trials of anti-government protesters on Bolotnaya Square - trials in the worst of Soviet tradition - are a demonstration of [the authorities'] readiness to pass from individual political prisoners to mass repression.” How would you respond to this?

I would agree with this point, with special emphasis on the word "demonstration." This isn't about actually beginning mass repression. Rather it’s about threatening people with the prospect of such measures. Of course, reprisals against participants in the Bolotnaya Square protests of May 6, 2012, in which I also took part, are illegitimate. But it would be an overstatement to describe the scale as mass. May the regime move on to mass repression? Of course, it may. But this would be suicidal.

[1] The first wave came after the Russian Civil War; the second, after WWII; Soviet dissidents and Jews made up the bulk of the third wave, in the Brezhnev era; the fourth wave came in the early 1990s; and the fifth -at the outset of the Putin presidency.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.