Czeching Out

By Jiri Kominek

Since Vladimir Putin and his brotherhood of siloviki came to power at the start of the decade, Russia quickly gained a reputation as an exporter of oil, gas and other raw materials; in short, a Saudi-Arabian-like petro state with more trees and less sand.

Economic experts around the world have ranted about the dangers facing Russia’s economy and its overreliance on natural resources.

Well Russia does have another export commodity which in the long run could prove to be more of a setback for the country than an underdeveloped oil-based economy: its own people, and to be more specific its middle class.

A growing trend amongst Russia’s burgeoning middle class is to make your money and then make tracks.

What is the root of this trend? Could it increasingly be that New Russians who have done well for themselves no longer consider their motherland good enough? Could it be a sudden switch of allegiance brought on by newfound, nouveau riche-driven sensibilities?

Actually no. Russians love being Russian, and make every effort to take their culture with them when they hit the road. As thick-skinned and cynical as they may be, however, even the toughest and most patriotic of the lot find it hard to focus on their business activities when constantly harassed by uniformed members of the law enforcement community or civil service banging on the door demanding bribes for this infraction or that.

It’s even more difficult to focus on your work when you are interrupted by, in many cases, the same people notifying you by telephone (or increasingly in person) that if you ever wish to see your children again you had better pay up pronto.

Mother Russia has always been cruel to her children, especially following the break-up of the Soviet Union. The 1990s were a tough decade. Following the rise to power of Vladimir Vladimirovich, however, things have gotten worse. Much worse.

This time it’s not armed thugs from the Solntsevo neighborhood banging at the door. This time it’s armed thugs from the interior ministry or the health department.

So where does the middle class go? Remember, these are people who comprise the backbone of any normal, healthy economy. They are not oligarchs who can instruct their security detail to whisk them to Sheremetyevo international airport and, while en route order the pilot to fire up the engines on their private Airbus executive jet and file a flight plan for Geneva.

Some head for Israel, others to the United States or the United Kingdom, however transferring their assets to London can be rather expensive given local taxation policies.

Increasingly, many pack their bags and check out of the Hotel Rus and head to the Czech Republic as they consider the culture and language of the small Central European similar to their own, the streets much safer, and the bear much better. Today Russians comprise the third largest ethnic group in Prague after the Ukrainians and Vietnamese.

Many of them are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists or artists. In short dynamic, educated individuals who set up shop in Prague or Brno, often bringing their families, preferring to raise their children in a safe environment and to send them to Western-accredited schools.

They can easily get a taste of home at one of Prague’s growing Russian delicatessens that sell Russian foods imported from Germany, another home to a large Russian community.

Meanwhile the Kremlin has slowly awakened to the reality that Russia is experiencing a brain drain and has decided to do something about it.

Recently, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev ordered the government to pass a bill that would ease immigration restrictions and is considering ordering the cancellation of immigration quotas for highly qualified foreign specialists.

It is difficult to imagine Western engineers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals forming queues, seeking work permits at Russian embassies in Prague, Berlin or Paris. On the other hand, others in Beijing and Shanghai may be willing to give it a go.