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  1. International
3 March 2022

Russians flee as rumours of imminent martial law swirl

Fears of coming economic collapse and near-totalitarian repression, both effects of the war in Ukraine, are prompting an exodus of young people.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – “I am so ashamed. It is unbelievable.” Yekaterina, 30, from Moscow, is on the cusp of leaving Russia.

The cause, she said, is president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a war she does not support conducted by means which horrify her. “I am afraid of the coming international isolation,” she said.

Yekaterina is one of potentially thousands of Russian citizens who want to emigrate in the near future. The women fear a coming economic collapse brought on by Western sanctions and near-totalitarian repression, all brought on by a brutal war they did not choose. The men fear the same, with the additional worry of being conscripted to fight in what increasingly looks like a military quagmire in Ukraine.

Quite where they will go, many would-be emigrants do not know. Russian citizens require a visa to travel to most Western countries. In any case, much of the West has closed its airspace to Russian planes. Two popular options are Georgia and Armenia, relatively free former Soviet states that allow Russians visa-free entry and are already home to sizeable populations of anti-Putin Russians. Yekaterina says she may go to the Caucasus, after which she hopes to work in Israel and gain citizenship. “There are not many choices,” she said.

There also isn’t much time: rumours abound that the borders will soon close and that Putin will impose martial law. Already reports are emerging of border guards treating people they suspect of fleeing the country with suspicion, in some cases turning them back. Some flights to destinations such as Tel Aviv are being turned back, possibly because the planes are sanctioned. Still, routes out of the country are closing fast.

Alexei, 29, has already been in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, for a few days. He spent three years in military school but says he does not support the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. Armenia was one of the few options open to him once he decided to flee. “I feel like I’ve slipped through the net,” he said.

He does not believe the government will issue a general conscription order, which would lead to mass unrest. “As Pushkin said, ‘Russian rebellion is senseless and merciless.’” Still, he says the advertising industry in which he works faces extinction due to massive Western sanctions.

Some emigrants have been wanting to leave for months or even years, but it is the war in Ukraine — and what it reveals about how Russia has changed — which has pushed them to jump now. “I could live in a country run by a gangster, because you can work within their rules. But I cannot live in a country ruled by a maniac, a murderer,” said Oleg, 28, from Vladimir Oblast, who plans to leave within days. He fears being conscripted and sent to Ukraine.

The Russian regime has taken an increasingly repressive attitude towards opponents of the war. On Thursday, deputies from a nationalist party in the Duma introduced a bill that would send people arrested for protesting against the war to fight for Russia. It may not pass, but the effect is clearly to terrorise dissidents.

Emigrating has been made more complicated by currency controls imposed by the government. The central bank has imposed a commission of 30 per cent on exchanges of roubles to Western currencies. A presidential decree banning Russians from leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash took effect on 2 March. Previously, this would not have been much of a problem, but the recent decision to disconnect several Russian banks from the Swift international banking network means that emigrants will find it more difficult to access money which remains in Russian bank accounts from outside of the country.

“If they close the borders, I have cash,” Oleg said. He has property in the country and assets worth more than the government cap. “I will find a corrupt border guard to pay off and cross.”

Some European countries are contemplating how to encourage a brain drain of liberal-minded young Russians. One option the EU is considering is a relaxation of visa rules for educated Russian citizens, according to Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. That could help to undermine Russia’s economy further while also offering the EU a source of high-skilled migration, officials believe.

Alexei hopes to stay in Yerevan for just a month, before trying to head to a Western country. “I don’t want to go to the West because it would mean setting my life back at least five years. I want to go home,” he said. “But I have no choice as long as Putin remains the president.”

[See also: The West must topple Putin – but it will take patience]

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