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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Questions Remain on Russian's Exit Rights

Russians can for the first time leave the country without official exit visas this month, ending decades of restricted travel. But the move has caused confusion among authorities and citizens alike.

"Nothing has been done", said Ilya Karakolko, Moscow's deputy chief for visas and registration, referring to the lack of a new mechanism to replace the exit visas, eliminated as of Jan. 1. "We have not received instructions from above on what to do".

No one seems to know what to do. A representative from Air France said that Russian passengers arrived Monday at Sheremetyevo Airport without either a new passport or old exit visa. They were not allowed to leave the country.

The Russian government inherited a Soviet decision of 1991, which granted then Soviet citizens the right of free travel to and from the former Soviet Union from the beginning of this year.

The law was received as a major victory by human rights advocates and was applauded by Western countries, as it broke down one of the central pillars of the Iron Curtain.

But the actual impact of the law upon those wanting to travel is for now symbolic.

Travel restrictions imposed on Russians by the government have already eased in tandem with the political changes of the past year.

The Foreign Ministry became much more lenient in approving requests from Russians to travel abroad, even though individuals were still required to show the authorities invitations from hosts abroad. In return they received a visa.

Now, Russians should file requests for their new 5-year passports with local Interior Ministry visa offices, of which there are 32 in Moscow. A one-month wait and a fee of about 5, 000 rubles should yield the new document, said Admir Luzinovich, head of the ministry's visa and registration department.

Old exit visas will be considered valid until April 1, but for now ignorance and the lack of new passports mean that travel will remain cumbersome.

The right to travel will also be curtailed for those who know "state secrets".

"Of course they won't be allowed to leave the country", said Luzinovich.

He had no figure for how many people fall into this category.

The fee, which equals the monthly salary for many state workers, is viewed by many Russians as a potential obstacle to getting a passport. It is merely shrugged off by officials.

"It is like a gift", said Luzinovich. "Before Jan. 1, Russians had to pay 1, 000 rubles for each trip".

Many neighboring countries tightened their immigration policies when the law was first announced in 1991, fearing a flood of Russian emigrants fleeing economic strife. Though many embassies report an increase of visa requests, the anticipated flood has not materialized.

Bulgaria, which is on a major transit route for Russians en route to shop in Turkey has introduced prohibitive travel rules for former Soviet citizens. As of Jan. 1, visitors from the Commonwealth must present a stamped invitation and $40 for each day of the intended stay.

Romania also tightened up travel restrictions in anticipation of the Jan. 1 watershed, while the former Czechoslovakia limits trips to 48 hours unless a Russian citizen can provide an official invitation in advance.

Spokesmen for the Polish and Hungarian Embassies said they have not changed travel requirements for Russians, but require official invitations.