Russia Update: State Duma Mulls Reinstating Exit Visas for Russian Citizens

November 13, 2015
Passport Control at Moscow Airport. Photo by RIA Novosti

The State Duma or lower house of the Russian parliament is discussing whether to re-introduce exit visas for Russian citizens, a feature of the Soviet system that was dismantled after the defeat of the August 1991 coup.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Russian State Media Says ISIS Has Taken Responsibility for Terrorist Attack in Paris; Blames West for ISIS

RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency, has claimed that ISIS has taken responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris today.

Without citing any evidence, RIA Novosti said briefly (translation by The Interpreter):

Police have reported seven separate attacks in the capital region. Islamic State (ISIS) has taken responsibility upon itself for what has occurred.

LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin TV station close to Russian intelligence and police, also repeated the claim without citing any additional information. At least 153 people have already been killed, more than 200 injured and 5 terrorists shot dead in what is the largest terrorist attack in France’s history and the second largest on the West since 9/11.

President Vladimir Putin issued his deep condolences to President Francois Hollande and the French people in a statement on

“Russia resolutely condemns these inhuman murders and is ready to provide any help in investigating these terrorist crimes,” said the brief statement.”

The Russian media appears to be promoting the ISIS angle more than other world media although of course the possibility is being discussed everywhere.

France24, a leading English-language French news service does not appear to have reported this claim.

Yesterday November 12, France24 reported readily that ISIS had taken responsibility for the attack in Beirut.

Russia began bomb strikes in Syria on September 30, ostensibly to hit ISIS, but as we have been reporting in our “Putin in Russia” blog, most of the strikes have hit other rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, not ISIS. reported that Rita Katz, the head of the SITE Intelligence Group  page, was tweeting that ISIS had said that the terrorist attacks of November 14 would be for France what the 9/11/01 attacks were for the United States.

But Katz has also reported that there has not been a specific group taking credit:

“Remember, remember the 5th of November,” is an old English verse devoted to Guy Fawkes Day, recently celebrated this year as every year to mark the foiling of the Catholic guy Fawke’s attempt to blow up the Protestant-controlled English House of Parliament on November 5, 1605.

But the day is not a holiday in France, and the words “November” and “remember” in French don’t rhyme.  Armistice Day to end the fighting between the Allies and Germany in 1918 is commemorated on November 11 in France.

Taking to his Instagram account as usual, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said, using the term “Ibliss State” or “IS” for ISIS common in Russia’s Muslim community (translation by The Interpreter):

No one doubts that the Ibliss State stands behind these events in Paris. This is the terrorist internationale, which threatens the world world and all of humankind. Tens of thousands of people have gone through training in the ranks of the ISIS. This evil must be destroyed at its root. Otherwise, hordes of terrorists, like torrential floods, will wash over all the countries and cities of the earth.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, clearly realizing what a threat to humankind emanates from IS, began a decisive campaign against the band of international terrorism. We are sincerely garteful to him for this, since we suffered the horrors of terrorist attacks which continued for years.

Once again we call on leaders of Arabic and Mulsim countries to unite efforts against the Ibliss State. There is no other way  out of this situation. I, as a person who has devoted his life to the struggle against terrorism, want to tell everyone on whom the taking of decisions depends, that there are no good or bad terrorists. Their goal is to destroy humanity! If together we do not defeat terrorism, the whole world will be plunged into chasos, and there will be no end to such bloody events! Let justice prevail!

The main theme that Russian social media has been drawing from the tragic events is that the French are to blame themselves for terrorism because they tolerated the satire of Charlie Hebdo, whose own journalists were massacred in January.

Russian officials and specifically Kadyrov at the time spent more time condemning what they saw as blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad and attacking what they saw as wrongful solidarity with the cartoonists in the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag than in condemning the actual terrorism.

And tonight as well, many Russians are indulging in schadenfreude as they recall a Charlie Hebdo cartoon this week that they felt was insensitive about their own tragedy in the Metrojet crash killing 224 people October 31, which experts are now saying could well have been caused by a bomb placed on board.

Konstantin Rykov, a web site entrpreneur and one of the top Russian pro-Kremlin propagandists on Twitter, reminded his 194,000 followers, most of whom speak only Russian, in both English and Russian of Putin’s speech at the UN during the General Assembly, blaming the West for the emergence of ISIS:

Translation: And this is exactly what Putin spoke about and warned. “Do you realize now what you’ve done?”

Rykov implied that he heard on CNN that one of the terrorists was related to ISIS: 

Translation: One terrorist who was detained announced that he had been recruited by ISIS…info from CNN…I wouldn’t have believed it until then.

But it’s not clear that CNN has reported this. In fact, one watcher felt that CNN was going so far out of its way not to make any claims about ISIS, that it was no longer credible: 

And others watching CNN also felt it was taking pains not to make the claim definitive:

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Striking Long-Distance Truck Drivers Defeat State’s Plan to Impose Large Fees for Loads on Federal Highways
Long-distance truck drivers went on strike this week in the most massive, visible and organized action of social protest in years,
Novaya Gazeta  wrote today. They were protesting a tariff the government was intending to impose for loads of more than 12 tons on federal highways that was supposed to go into effect on November 15.
According to various sources, between 1,000 and 1,500 truckers in 25 to 30 regions of Russia took part in the strike, write Novaya Gazeta‘s reporters Aleksei Polukhin and Diana Khachatryan. Some organizers were detained or fined but on the whole the action was peaceful and achieved its goal.

Translation: The trucks have risen up in Russia: today the long-distance truckers are holding a mass action protest.

Translation: Photo report: Long-distance truckers against road toll. 

A day before the “flash mob” was due to strike, the government lowered the tariff for highway tolls from 3.73 rubles to 1.53 rubles, although only until March 16 when the toll will go up again to 3.06 rubles.

The demonstrators also gained a concession regarding the punitive fines of 450,000 rubles ($6,734) that were going to be imposed on drivers who had evaded the fee — and the million- ruble ($14,966) penalty for those who were repeat offenders. Now the fines will be collected only in the Moscow Region. Truckers in other regions will not face the heavy fines for now.

But the prospect that the government might impose them in the future made the truckers turn out for their action anyway on the day after the official announcement was made.

Translation: In several regions, long-distance truckers held an action on the road side against the introduction of a toll on federal highways.

Translation: Long-distance truck drivers throughout the country are protesting against road tolls. Good guys! Everyone should learn from them how not to be sheep! 

The Ministry of Transportation then called the strike “an attempt at blackmail” to force a change in the ruling — which was achieved. But the drivers themselves wondered if the fine did not have any basis in the first place if it was so easily removed.

Novaya Gazeta acknowledges that tariffs for heavy loads, that can cause damage to highways or pose safety hazards, is a normal practice around the world.

We could note that in New York State, for example, there is a $25 fee for an overload permit and $350 to have police escorts and requirements to take certain routes with oversize freight; this would be in addition to regular DOT permits.

Novaya Gazeta pointed out that the Russian fees, however, were exorbitant and imposed at a time of economic crisis when the trucking business has lost 7% of its business due to the cancelling of delivery contracts, the loss of more lucrative foreign-currency loads with the boycott of foreign imports, and the increase in the cost of fuel within Russia despite the worldwide fall of oil prices. Many small and medium trucking firms have been hit hard which is why the heavy fine angered so many.
Another source of anger was the manufacturer of Platon, an automatic payments system that calculated the cost of tolls per kilometer. He turned out to be a young entrepreur named Igor Rotenberg, who happens to be the son of the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg who, together, with his brother, won many of the Sochi Olympics contracts as childhood friends of President Vladimir Putin.
As the Novaya Gazeta authors point out, the truckers’ protest was similar to mass demonstrations against paid parking in Moscow, fees for repairs and other tariffs imposed on small business despite the proclaimed intention to promote it as a substitute for imports. “The government, faced with the drying up of its oil and gas rents, has concentrated on direct exploitation of the people,” they said. “The longer they will be hushed, the more they will have to pay,” using the phrase from the end of Pushkin’s famous poem Boris Godunov.

Pyotr Shkumatov, coordinator of Blue Buckets, another successful mass public campaign to protest the excessive use of speeding cars and sirens by officials, said that, in principle, the concept of a fee for heavy loads was fair and necessary, although he said only about half of the two million registered truckers in Russia use federal highways.

But he said that if such a large tariff was imposed, then other excises and taxes would have to be lowered, or truckers would be taxed three times — once for fuel they purchase for their trip, twice for the road permit, and a third time for the use of federal roads. It would have been imposed unfairly, as well, as it was imposed by weight, and not every trucker with a load over 12 tons would be on a federal highway. He also pointed out that these costs would then be passed on to the consumer in food prices raised by 1-5%, which would increase the already heavy burden on families struggling to survive since they lost a third of the value of their savings and paychecks in the crash last year.

The truckers’ action follows the pattern of many such labor actions in the Soviet and Russian periods, where workers’ demands are often met as soon as they show their potential might to the state because officials fear their protests may grow in size and become more politicized. So a few visible leaders are arrested, and the rest are mollified for the time being. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

3 Supporters of Jailed Artist Pavlensky Themselves Detained for Demonstration at Lubyanka Today; 2 Yesterday
Three supporters of Pyotr Pavlensky, the artist who set fire to the door of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and was arrested November 9, have themselves been arrested today and taken to the Meshchansky police precinct, November 13, Bolshoi Gorod reported.

Translation: Three activists were detained at the FSB building for an action in support of Pavlensky. One of them has been nabbed already 4 times this year.

The three people detained are Mikhail Udimov, Yelena Zakharova and Alla Frolov, OVD-Info, the police monitoring group reported. They were carrying banners with the slogans “Bravo, Pavlensky” and “Down with Chekists’ Power”. Cheka is the abbreviation for the Cherezvychayny Komitet or Extraordinary Committee that waged terror against opponents of the Soviet regime.

Yesterday November 10, two other activists, Anastasiya Mednikova and Aleksandr Shelkovenkov were detained for holding a picket in front of the FSB building, charged with demonstrating without a permit (Art. 20.2-5 of the administrative code), and then released, OVD-Info reported. 

Yelena Zakharova, however could face worse punishment as she has been arrested three times already this year: one in February, for laying flowers at the Ukrainian Embassy in condolences with the Maidan activists killed; once in April for a solo picket with the sign “Report the Names of the Murderers of Boris Nemtsov”; and in September for an attempt to come to the defense of another activist, Mark Galperin. She also was arrested multiple times last year for protests.

Mikhail Udimov has also gone to protests often before. He was last detained at Basmanny Court where he had gone to attend the trial of another activist, Ildar Dalin.

Alla Frolova was one of the coordinators of the movement “Together for Decent Medicine” to protest the cut in doctors’ salaries by the Russian Ministry of Health.

The FSB building on Lubyanka Square, itself known as the Lubyanka, has housed Russia’s secret police for nearly a century, first the Cheka, then the NKVD, then the KGB. It is not often the site of protest because it is heavily guarded.

 — Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia’s Parliament Mulls Reinstating Exit Visas for Russian Citizens
The State Duma or lower house of the Russian parliament is discussing whether to re-introduce exit visas for Russian citizens, a feature of the Soviet system that was dismantled after the defeat of the August 1991 coup. reports that MP Vadim Solovyev, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on Constitutional Law and State Construction, a member of the Communist Party faction of the Duma, said in an interview on the radio station Govorit Moskva that his concern is how to inform citizens of Russia about how to chose safe travel destinations and stay secure while traveling abroad. Having an exit visa would accomplish this purpose, he says (translation by The Interpreter):

“Now there are many proposals to introduce exit visas. Foreign Ministry officials and security officers explain to a citizen what he risks. And when he has already obtained this information and signed off on it, and says yes, I know everything, I’m briefed, I have been warned, nevertheless he insists that he should have the opportunity to leave.”

Solovyov maintains that citizens themselves are making such proposals. He added that citizens could be given other ways of obtaining information about safety in other countries but he did not specify then.
Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Law and State Construction, himself said he was not drafting such initiatives and had not heard of them.
Mariya Zakharova, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said her office was not briefed on the discussions about exit visas and told she knew nothing about it.
This is not the first time the Communists have proposed exit visas, although they have become more urgent since the crash of the Metrojet (Kogalymavia) flight in the Sinai peninsula on October 31. On November 6, Russia halted flights to Egypt but Sergei Ivanov, chief of the Kremlin administration, said Russia is not planning to halt flights to any other countries.
But two communists MPs, Valery Rashkin and Sergei Obukhov have urged President Vladimir Putin to halt flights to Turkey and Tunis as well.
The Federation Council supported the Communists’  proposals but as Mikhail Yemalyanov, deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Economic Policy, told, the State Duma didn’t support it.

Earlier, Vice Premier Arkady Dvorkovich announced during the government briefing period at parliament that “no restrictions” would be put on tourism abroad in Russia. He said Russian authorities are now conducting a security audit at foreign airports and when it was completed, recommendations would be given to increase security.

In the Soviet era, only government elites and certain loyal citizens were permitted to travel abroad. Putin has reintroduced a ban on foreign travel for Russian law-enforcers, evidently due to concern that they may be arrested abroad. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick