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Corruption in Russia Encourages Emigration

from the December 06, 2011 eNews issue

Dirty politics. As protestors flooded Moscow on Monday and Tuesday decrying election fraud and calling for an end to Putin's reign, the world's attention turned to Russia's Duma elections. Opposition leaders are charging United Russia (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party) with a stream of misbehaviors, including "carousel" tactics, absentee voting, ballot stuffing, and procedural violation in the wake of its win in Sunday's vote. Whether United Russia used underhanded tactics to win, or whether the opposing parties are just sore losers, the voting system in Russia is not shiny, sparkling white.

The charges of corruption at the polls have drawn the attention of the West. EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton acknowledged the election was well prepared and administered, but said reports of procedural violations are "of serious concern." Ashton pointed specifically to an alleged, "lack of media impartiality, a lack of separation between party and state, and the harassments of independent monitoring attempts." Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had earlier said the election was slanted in favor of the United Russia party.

Some are waiting to see if Putin, once extremely popular, might not be sitting on a powder keg of his own making. Putin has high popularity ratings but has upset many people by saying he wants to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev after the presidential election, opening the way for him to rule until 2024. He was even booed at a sports event last month.

After meeting United Russia representatives after the elections, Putin said he would reshuffle the government after the presidential election he is contesting in March, but he promised no immediate action. This was not enough to appease opposition leaders angered by the widespread reports that the ruling party's vote count was inflated by ballot stuffing, even though it barely held on to a majority of seats in the State Duma lower house.

U.S. Republican Senator John McCain said Russia could now face a revolt. In a message to Putin on Twitter, he wrote: "Dear Vlad, The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you."

Russian political experts have dismissed suggestions that Putin could face a massive uprising. Russia has little tradition of major street protests, despite the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and dissent has often been crushed. Instead of "street revolt," Russia might be facing an even greater long-term challenge in the form of mass emigrations.

In a May, 2011 poll conducted by the respected Levada Center, a Russian non-governmental research and polling organization, 22 percent of respondents said they wanted to permanently emigrate from Russia, compared with 13 percent in April 2009. The poll among 1,600 Russian adults across the country had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

Emigration statistics are hard to come by because few of those who leave for lengthy periods renounce Russian citizenship, while getting foreign residency may take years.

But demographer Mikhail Denisenko at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow estimates that at least half a million Russians moved abroad in 2002-09 and more are on the way in what he describes as "the fifth wave of emigration since the beginning of the 20th century."  

The level of frustration is higher... It's a feeling of discomfort, an aversion to life in Russia," said Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center.

This aversion could have dramatic consequences, both for Russia itself, and for other countries that must prepare to handle a dramatic influx of immigration from Russian ex-patriots. Valid or not, the perception of political corruption is going to be a challenge that soon to be President Putin and the United Russia party will have to take seriously, else the only thing that Russians may be "united" in is a willingness to abandon Russia for greener pastures.


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