Blog - Back to the USSR

Added on Wednesday, 2014-08-27 22:25 CEST in category Moscow
As you've undoubtedly noticed (or where have you been hiding?), Russia and "the West" aren't on the best of terms right now. It's sanctions left, sanctions right, sanctions everywhere.

The Russian food sanctions seem bizarre: a lot of produce was imported from Europe, and now it's simply not there anymore (well, almost). These aren't so much sanctions against the West (in Finland people are thanking Putin for cheap cheese), as they are sanctions against Russia's own people.

As soon as the sanctions were announced there were articles on what to buy while you still can, polls asking what's more important: Crimea or cheese (cheese won out), and of course ways around the boycot (shrimps' country of origin: Belarus?!).

But there's a lot more going on in Russia, things that aren't being covered much in western media. As bizarre as these sanctions may seem, they fit very well in a line of new and/or proposed laws and regulations, curtailing people's freedom. A few highlights:

1. Registration of foreign citizenship

In July the Russian State Duma accepted a bill, requiring Russians with a foreign citizenship to be registered as such, despite the fact that it has long since been practice to ask about any such foreign citizenships on passport application forms. This used to be the case in the Netherlands too, until they dropped it last year. But apparently this field isn't being used for anything (which begs the question why it is even there), and Russians now have to officially and separately declare any foreign citizenship(s) they may have. Furthermore, this law extends to holders of any other document, granting the holder permanent residence abroad. (So that's about anything that isn't a normal visa.)

An exception has been made for those who live outside the borders of the Russian Federation permanently, but what exactly constitutes living abroad permanently is quite unclear: if you still hold a Russian permanent registration, then you are not considered to be living abroad permanently, and you'll have to declare your foreign citizenship as soon as possible when visiting (!) Russia again.

Refusal to register is now a criminal offence. Although, only if they feel like applying criminal law (search for "lack of clear criteria").

The idea behind this registration isn't quite clear, but politicans have been quoted saying they look at people with a second citizenship with suspicion, and there are "future blog posts" on "limiting the travel of such categories of citizens, [...] as persons with dual citizenship."

2. Restrictions on travel

The Constitution of the Russian Federation allows citizens to freely leave and again enter the country. Exceptions are only made for certain groups of people, like employees of the Federal Security Service. But as of late there has been a tendency to curtail this freedom. Although the dreaded Soviet exit visas are not possible constitutionally, the state is free to restrict international travel any way it sees fit. So why would it want to do so? Money.

Some Russians like going on vacations, abroad i.e. And there they spend money. Money, which would be better spent in Russia. So what better way to keep some of this money in Russia (besides improving local tourism, but never mind that), than by introducing a tax on traveling abroad, or by immensely increasing the price of an international passport? "Citizens of Russia over the period of validity of their passports take abroad and spend there on average between 20 to 40 thousand dollars. It would only be proper and fair, if at least 5 to 10 thousand they would give to their own country, in exchange for an international passport." Or, to put it a bit more shortly, "if a person has the money to travel abroad, let them share with the state."

All these things are just ideas for now, and let's hope they'll stay just that.

3. Yandex.News under fire

Yandex.News, for which I work, is a fully automated news aggregator. It gets its contents from thousands of (inter)national news sources, and automatically clusters and ranks them. It does this so well, that Yandex.News is in effect the most popular news source in Russia.

However, not everybody believes that there is no human intervention, despite Yandex.News's management regularly explaining how Yandex.News works, which factors influence clustering, ranking, rubrication, and so on. And this begged the question, should the government force Yandex.News to register as mass media?

As a fully automated news aggregator it shouldn't have to, because it doesn't publish anything itself. That is, if there indeed is no human intervention or editing. Any pretensions anyone might have should thus be addressed to the source of the news, which in all cases is not Yandex.News.

But not all of Yandex.News's sources are themselves registered as mass media, nor are they all Russian. So whom to hold accountable then? One nasty situation that happened not too long ago, was when the Russian version of a specific news story talked about freedom fighters, whereas the Ukrainian version talked about terrorists.

The consequences could've been disastrous. Excluding non-mass-media (regional and international) news sources makes you lose quality and valuable "second opinions" on the news, whereas being forced to register as mass media holds you accountable for everything you publish. In the case of Yandex.News that's thousands upon thousands of news stories per day, which for one would all have to be manually fact-checked, also to make sure no anti-Russian publications slip through, for which in the future they may hold criminal liability…

There's a happy ending to this one, though: neither has happened, Yandex.News did not have to register as mass media.

(P.S.: RBC has a great article on the entire Yandex.News story.)

4. Russians' personal data must be kept in Russia

At first sight this new law, which goes into effect in two years, seems to be aimed at Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, etc., who will be obliged to store and process personal data about Russians in Russia. Failure to do so may lead to these services being blocked in Russia. (That's the first problem, btw., how would these services know who is Russian and who is not?)

But this law can be applied a lot more strictly, and a lot more arbitrarily. E.g., it'll be against the law to order plane tickets from a foreign airliner, book a hotel, or to otherwise have one's personal data be sent abroad. You couldn't even open a foreign bank account, or work abroad, or even send money abroad, according to this logic. (Btw., as a Russian citizen your salary, earned no matter where, must be transfered to a Russian bank before it can be used.)

It probably won't be applied this strictly, but the possibility to do so whenever it so pleases is there.

5. Other tidbits

But wait, there's more!

So yeah, that… When I still lived in Moscow, I really liked the relatively big personal freedom. As long as you don't really bother anyone it's fine, that was more or less the spirit. You could pretty much park wherever you liked, for free, as long as you didn't block anyone or anything, crawl VKontakte for free music and movies, light fireworks whenever you felt like it, smoke pretty much everywhere (that's the only ban I'm sorta happy with), and travel to your heart's content.

But all that seems to be going away, and the odd thing is the majority of Russians seem to support these measures. Biased sources of information I suppose… (Golden-colored bust of Putin anyone?)

Now don't get me wrong, I don't regret having gotten Russian citizenship. My time in Russia has been very interesting (with its ups and downs), I've got lots of great friends there, and love my work. I also love coming back there. Let's just hope that stays possible :)

(ЗЫ: зато Крым - наш.)