syrian_refugees_reutersRussia’s state-run media has paid a lot of attention to the migrant crisis afflicting Europe. Most commentators dwell on the divisions within the European Union and the difficulties individual European countries have in accommodating newcomers. The average Russian watching television and reading mass-circulation newspapers would invariably see the refugee situation in Hungary and Germany as Europe’s ultimate catastrophic event.

The conservative tabloid KP (formerly known as Komsomolskaya Pravda, a publication for the Soviet youth) has featured a series titled “The Chronicles of the Demise of Germany.” The stories are presented as first-hand accounts by Russian-speaking Germans who are terrified by the influx of “the Arabs.” The picture drawn is that of the final reckoning for Europe, whose excessive tolerance for minorities is now causing Europeans to give up the tenets of their faith and the foundations of their sovereign statehood to appease the refugees (KP’s various editions print upwards of 40 million copies a month).

These are not fringe views in Russia. “Many people sympathize with the refugees, of course,” president Vladimir Putin said while speaking last Thursday at a meeting of the Valdai discussion club, “but a massive, uncontrolled, shocking clash of different lifestyles can lead, and already is leading, to growing nationalism and intolerance, to the emergence of a permanent conflict in society.”

In today’s Russia, both economic freedoms and human rights are suspect because they are seen as conduits of foreign influence rather than ways to empower the individual.

The refugee crisis is portrayed in Russia, to a widely receptive audience, as a vindication of the Kremlin’s cause for the primacy of the state. People flee their homes in Syria and seek refuge in Europe because the West (mainly the U.S.) has destroyed their statehood. “The way to solve [the migrant crisis] at a fundamental level is to restore their statehood where it has been destroyed,” Putin said when speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

The view that has prevailed in Russia (with much help from the state-run media) completely ignores the character of regimes or quality of governance. The Kremlin is, in a way, consistent. “The situation in Syria may have an element of realpolitik to it, but it is also about two worldviews,” wrote Ivan Krastev, a political scientist and one of the most perceptive commentators on Russia and Europe. “America sees global instability primarily as the result of authoritarians’ desperate attempts to preserve a doomed status quo, while Moscow blames Washington’s obsession with democracy.”

The refugee crisis is portrayed in Russia, to a widely receptive audience, as a vindication of the Kremlin’s cause for the primacy of the state.

Some of the Kremlin’s pronouncements may resemble a typical page from a Western conservative’s playbook. It’s all there: the emphasis on national and traditional values, the guarded attitude to foreigners and migrants. But this does not sound like an honest conservative agenda to me because it markedly excludes the rights of the individual. In today’s Russia, both economic freedoms and human rights are suspect because they are seen as conduits of foreign influence rather than ways to empower the individual.

Russia—itself a major destination for refugees and now an active military player in the Middle East—is very sparing in granting asylum to anyone, including Syrians and even Ukrainians. “Just three Syrians have been given full rights of asylum in Russia, while, if you ask me, about 10,000 Syrians actually deserve it,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of Civic Assistance Committee, an NGO that has been involved in helping migrants in Russia for 25 years now.

According to official figures, there are currently 12,000 Syrians staying in Russia under various statuses, from temporary asylum to permanent work authorization. During the first eight months of this year, the Russian Immigration Service website reports, 7,102 citizens of Syria entered Russia and 7,162 left Russia. More Syrians have been leaving Russia than entering, which is clearly the reason why European countries are seeing growing numbers of Syrians arriving from Russia. Hundreds of migrants have recently crossed from Russia into Norway. They are not allowed to travel between the borders on foot, so a lucrative trade in bicycles has opened up, with migrants buying bikes and pedaling into Norway.

A few more than 800 people have ever been granted full asylum in Russia. Refugees arriving in Russia complain about the complexity of the system. Even Ukrainians who fled their country during the conflict with Russia find it hard to establish a permanent home there. Ukrainian refugees were once the number one subject for the state-run media: up to 2 million Ukrainians were reported to have crossed the Russian border at the height of the war. The Russian state has been mostly giving arriving Ukrainians a temporary refuge: about 400,000 Ukrainians received temporary asylum in 2014 and 2015.

The Kremlin dismisses the possibility that some refugees may be fleeing from a bad regime. For Moscow, an authoritarian regime is as good as a democratic one, as long as it keeps its population in order and does not let foreigners roam free within its borders.

That campaign folded rather quickly, Gannushkina said recently. Ukrainians are even prohibited from applying for asylum in the regions, including Moscow and the Moscow region, where they are likeliest to find jobs. A recent report by the Civic Assistance Committee provides a detailed account of Russia as a destination for refugees.

The West may be guilty of disrupting the fragile equilibrium in the Middle East, but my concern is Russia’s own behavior. The Kremlin dismisses the possibility that some refugees may be fleeing from a bad regime. For Moscow, an authoritarian regime is as good as a democratic one, as long as it keeps its population in order and does not let foreigners roam free within its borders. And these foreigners include Ukrainians. Despite all the talk about the Russians being the world’s largest “divided nation,” (Putin repeated this last week at Valdai) few Ukrainian citizens are willing or welcome to come and live in Russia. Russia sees itself as a fortress, but does not want to be a refuge for those who seek it.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors.

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Maxim Trudolyubov
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Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Fellow at Kennan Institute
Maxim Trudolyubov, Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti, has been following Russian economy and politics since the late 1990s. He has served as an opinion page editor for Vedomosti and editor and correspondent for the newspaper Kapital. He is the author of Me and My Country: A Common Cause (2011) and People Behind the Fence (2016). He won the Paul Klebnikov Fund’s prize for courageous Russian journalism in 2007, was a Yale World Fellow in 2009, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2010-11.
Maxim Trudolyubov
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Russia is a Fortress, But Not a Refuge
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