Staunton, March 24 – Fifty percent of the most entrepreneurial and successful young Russians were thinking about emigration in the years running up to the Crimean Anschluss because they did not see any future for themselves in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or any chance that they would be able to change the country’s course, according to Lev Gudkov.
That represents a major change from the pre-2008 situation when those most wanting to leave were both fewer in number and less successful, but it has been at least in part reversed by the patriotic wave that swept the country following the annexation of Crimea, the Levada Center head tells “Nezavisimaya gazeta” (ng.ru/ng_politics/2015-03-24/9_migration.html).
If as the euphoria about Crimea wears off and that decline is again reversed – something that appears to be happening -- it will mean that Russia risks losing “its most successful and creative citizens” and the Russian opposition is losing many in the “middle class” cadres it has been counting on to mount a challenge to the increasingly harsh Putin regime.
Indeed, while the sociologist did not speculate on this point, it may even be possible that the looming loss of these highly skilled people was one of the reasons that led Putin to act as he did in Ukraine.
Only a relatively small share of the population, of course, has ever been really interested in emigration, the Levada Center head points out. After 1991, the first wave included mostly ethnic minorities; and the second, those who had lost their jobs as a result of reforms. Together, these amounted to some 3.5 million people.
But the crisis of 2008 and its economic and political fallout have changed the situation, the sociologist says, and now it is the members of what may be called “the middle class” who are ready to leave, precisely “the most successful, entrepreneurial, and well-placed groups who have achieved success here in Russia.”
“The growth of such attitudes became especially marked as spring 2011 approached,” he continues, “when it became clear that Putin was returning and that the political system would become ever harsher, that no innovative reforms could be expected, and all the reforms announced by Medvedev about a legal state and innovations were empty promises and hot air.”
Even for the population as a whole, the percentage of Russians saying they were thinking seriously about emigration rose from 11 percent in the early 2000s to 22 to 23 percent at that time, but among the educated and successful under-35-year-olds, that measure rose to nearly half, an unprecedented and dangerous trend, the Levada Center head says.
Gudkov insists that these people were not interested in emigrating primarily as a form of protest but rather felt that way because they considered their “civilizational” understandings in compatible “with the norms of the current regime.” They “did not see themselves in Russia or believe in their own future in it.”
Crimea changed everything almost overnight, Gudkov says. “The approval of the annexation of Crimea and the approval of Vladimir Putin and his activity in connection with it eliminated a very large part of the complaints people had about the authorities.” They still viewed it as corrupt and self-interested, but most Russians felt it had acted “’correctly.’”
That had an impact on how people thought about emigration. During the entire spring and first half of last summer, interest in it fell. But as a result of impact of sanctions and even more of counter-sanctions, which the educated young in the cities felt even more than others, the successful young again began thinking about leaving.
Gudkov also addresses other aspects of emigration and immigration. He notes that the top elite is too small to measure such shifts although its members “understand that their position, status and property are not guaranteed here” and that “at any moment,” they could lose everything. Consequently, many of them send money or children abroad. People at the very top of the scholarly community maintain homes in both Russia and the West.
The sociologist says that economic problems in Europe have also limited emigration as there are fewer opportunities there. At the same time, he says, there is a “certain outflow of young people connected with protests and the opposition” who are threatened by the security services.
Most of the people in that category are going to nearby countries, including the Baltic states, Ukraine and even Georgia, and they now “have begun to form something like diasporas of new political emigres from Russia.” There are similar groups even in the Czech Republic and “in part” in Germany.
Russians leaving their country for whatever reason are moving in new directions. Earlier, they went to Israel, Europe, Canada and the US. Now, Gudkov says, “to an ever greater degree, people are leaving for Asia, including China, South Korea and Australia.”
As far as Russians returning to Russia, that resource is “close to exhaustion.” Those who wanted to come have, those remaining abroad are low skilled, and the Russian government program for resettlement is largely a bureaucratic failure.
Russia today, the sociologist says, “is becoming attractive only for those workers with low qualifications. And in a civilizational, cultural and professional sense, this is ever greater testimony of the demands for such workers and of the degradation of Russia itself as a center of attraction, despite all the talk about it as ‘a special civilization.’”
Gudkov concludes by saying that while “everything is possible with [Russia’s] government,” re-erecting the iron curtain and keeping people from departing doesn’t seem likely. If it did happen, he says, it would not end the desire of many to leave and it would be time to include it in the list of countries without a future.