Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free Exit, But It's Not Really Free

The Russian law on free exit, which went into effect Jan. 1, is, of course, a very positive development. Russians will no longer have to apply for permission to leave their own country; they will receive passports good for five years, joining the citizens of "civilized" countries who move freely around the globe.

Western countries and particularly the United States, which for years put pressure on the Soviet Union to ease travel restrictions for its citizens, applaud the new law as one more sign that Russia is becoming a "normal" country.

But the real effects of the new law are likely to be quite different from those envisioned by a naive populace that believes that only an evil bureaucracy kept them prisoners.

Freedom to leave the country in no way guarantees the means to do so. With Aeroflot ruble tickets costing several month's salary for the average Russian, economic restrictions may prove to be nearly as onerous as political ones for many would-be travelers.

And even with the cash to buy a ticket, Russians may have a very difficult time finding a place to go. The right to leave one country certainly does not convey any right to enter another. With the increasing freedom to travel in Russia comes an increasing tightening of borders in the West - and also in the formerly "fraternal" countries of Eastern Europe.

Russia is joining the ranks of those Third World countries from which every visa-seeker is regarded as a potential immigrant, and is required to prove that he or she has a compelling reason for returning home before receiving the stamp.

All over Europe and in the United States, visa requirements for Russians are becoming more restrictive. In Italy anyone inviting a Russian has to prove that he or she has the means to support the invitee if the Russian does not return home.

Germany, once a haven for Soviets with even a drop of German blood, is tightening restrictions on immigration, as well as beefing up security on its eastern border. Other examples abound.

The answer to Russian's travel and emigration problems, as to so much else, is political stability and economic well-being. Russians must be able to afford to go abroad, and must have an economic stake in their country sufficient not be tempted to overstay their welcome.

The irony is that the new law on free emigration is unlikely to be of any great benefit to Russia's citizens until the country catches up with the West economically as well as politically. and by then, perhaps, no one will want to leave.