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Russia says it’s fulfilling its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe by lifting travel restrictions on citizens with access to state secrets, but that isn't true

Source: Meduza
Sergey Fadeichev / TASS / Scanpix

In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia’s ban on foreign travel for any citizens with recent access to state secrets was a violation of the right to freedom of movement. Today, Russia’s Justice Ministry insists that it’s fixed the problem. Now, if citizens are refused a foreign-travel passport, they can appeal to the Foreign Ministry, and “in a large number of cases” the authorities have sided with individuals. Meduza has learned that this claim is untrue: appeals to the Foreign Ministry are rarer than ever, and decisions to issue passports in these cases are almost unheard of.

Berkovich and Others v. Russia

In 2005, a former officer named Gennady Berkovich working at the military’s Electromechanical Research Institute applied for a new foreign-travel passport, after the institute didn’t return his old documents, following his dismissal. Russia’s passport and visa service rejected his application, explaining that his access to state secrets meant he was banned from going abroad until 2009 (five years from the moment he last worked with classified information). Berkovich’s case reached Russia’s Supreme Court, where he ultimately lost. In 2009, he finally received his passport, but a few months earlier he filed a complaint with the ECHR.

In 2018, the European Court combined Berkovich’s lawsuit with nine more like it, and ruled that Russia’s policy violated the right to freedom of movement. The ECHR awarded the plaintiffs several thousand euros in compensation, and reminded Russian officials that, by joining the Council of Europe, the country committed itself to immediately removing all foreign-travel obstacles imposed on individuals with recent access to state secrets. “The Russian Federation became a member of the Council of Europe on February 28, 1996. It still has not fulfilled this obligation, however, though more than 20 years have passed,” the court said in its ruling.

Russia decided to report that everything is good now, without ever reforming its laws

Even before the ECHR’s decision, the issue of foreign travel for citizens with access to state secrets came before Russia’s Constitutional Court in 2012, when judges heard a lawsuit by a soldier named Alexander Ilchenko, who’d previously filed a complaint with the Strasbourg court. The Constitutional Court ruled that Russia’s travel restrictions do not violate the Constitution because each specific decision to issue one of these passports must be considered individually, with officials taking into account all the circumstances of a person’s access to classified data. 

In its report to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which monitors implementation of ECHR decisions, Russia’s Justice Ministry cites this Constitutional Court ruling. Separately, Russian officials emphasize that the ban on leaving the country is a temporary restriction that’s only valid for five years. Additionally, the Justice Ministry maintains, Russia operates an interdepartmental commission to review applications from citizens regarding restrictions on their right to travel, and decisions on all complaints about rejected passports are made within three months of an initial preliminary review.

“According to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s data, in a large number of cases, appeals to the interdepartmental commission lead to the removal of travel restrictions, and these decisions are steadily rising. For example, there were 116 appeals received in 2018 (there were 104 in 2017), 40 of which were granted (the number was 29 in 2017), which is 35 percent of all requests received (in 2017, it was 28 percent),” the Justice Ministry said in its report.

This is inaccurate. The Russian commission is actually rejecting more appeals now than before.

Every year on its website, Russia’s Foreign Ministry publishes the results of all 12 interdepartmental commission sessions on citizens’ appeals, as well as the group’s annual reports. Meduza studied these reports, going back to 2006, when the commission in its present composition was first formed.

In its report to the Council of Europe, Russia’s Justice Ministry provided accurate data for 2017 and 2018, but it didn’t disclose that there were more appeals filed in previous years, when the commission sided with individuals far more often.

The record was set in 2006, when the commission granted 79 percent of all appeals. That same year, the commission was restructured. In 2012, appeals to the commission peaked at 325 (221, or 68 percent, of which were granted). 

Beginning in 2014, the number of appeals started to fall, just as the first reports emerged about new travel restrictions on staff at law-enforcement and defense agencies. The commission nevertheless continued granting more appeals until 2017. In the first 10 months of 2019, the commission granted just 26 percent of all submitted appeals.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers will review the Russian Justice Ministry’s report at sessions scheduled for early December 2019.

Story by Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Kevin Rothrock