While Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum has recently made waves, there's been a major upswing in the number of people seeking to leave Russian and declare asylum in other countries. The world should take note, as recent statistics indicate that Russians themselves are seeking to leave the country in droves.
Russians have recently topped the list of the highest number of EU asylum applications, even above those from war-torn states like Syria. Recently released figures from Eurostat indicate that the European Union received the highest number of asylum applications from Russians in the first three months of 2013 (a total of 8,435), only followed closely behind by Syrians (8,395), Afghans (5,800), Pakistanis (4,310), and Somalis (3,430).
Why are so many Russians seeking asylum this year? The range of political and economic pressures threatening Russians may be on the rise, but most of these issues have lingered for years, which makes the recent upsurge in Russian asylum cases particularly remarkable.
Asylum is, at its root, a political claim. Nations have long held the right in international law to provide political refuge for those claiming persecution based on race, religion, nationality, or political opinion. With the Syrian crisis and trouble in Afghanistan still raging, it is not surprising that the number of global asylum-seekers worldwide has recently jumped by 20%, according to UN statistics.
While the list of countries that receive the most applications tends to fluctuate year to year, the huge number of Russian applications to Europe is particularly significant, as European states are some of the biggest recipients of asylum applications globally. The top nation receiving asylum seekers in 2012 was the U.S., followed closely by Germany, France, Sweden, the UK, and Switzerland.
The news of this remarkable number of Russians seeking asylum in the EU comes on the tails of news of some notable Russian figures leaving their home country this past year. Bloomberg recently highlighted the flight of a number of these individuals, such as economist Sergei Guriev (known as Russia's Paul Krugman), who explained to interviewers that he left because he feared being jailed for expressing his political opinions.
As early as 2011, reports began to circulate that Russians were emigrating in droves, motivated by a range of political and economic issues. The country's GDP has, of course, been stagnant (at around 3% growth over the last few years), and the suffocating grip of Putin's government has been getting even tighter. An estimated 150,000 Russians left the country in 2011.
A Russian polling center has attempted to measure the reasons for public discontent in Russian society, which seem to stem from a wide range of economic and political factors. An unreasonably high cost of living (67%) and widespread corruption among public servants (49%) are among the leading factors.
So, while Russia may provide a safe-haven (however temporary) for Snowden, it certainly hasn't been a comfortable home for a large number of Russians themselves. But Putin seems aware of the problem, and remains relatively unscathed. Lev Gudkov, who runs a prominent Russian think-tank and survey center Levada, told the Los Angeles Times that the efforts of so many Russians to leave the country didn't seem to phase the Putin government. "It appears that the Kremlin couldn't care less if the most talented, most active Russians are leaving," he explained, "because their exodus lifts the social and political tension in the country and weakens the opposition."