Beltway Journal: Russia’s ‘Brain Drain’

Earlier this week at an annual event in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his countrymen, indeed the world, with a firm and unequivocal guarantee: Russia will respond in kind to any acts of intimidation from Washington or its allies. The remarks are expected. They’re a natural next-step in the progressively escalating tensions between the Kremlin and Washington. Indeed since entering office, President Putin has taken any and every opportunity to impart upon the rest of the world that his Russia, is a resurgent Russia.

Tactics are overt, covert and everything in between, and since meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Putin has, in a way, reconvinced international observers of Russia’s authoritative role in global affairs – of Russia’s greatness.

Though despite all his earnest, President Putin hasn’t convinced everyone.

In fact, according to a new report from the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, a Washington, D.C. foreign policy think tank, “human capital is fleeing Russia.” The report, titled “The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain,” explains that since Putin entered office, and especially since his reelection in 2012, the emigration rate among crucial demographics has accelerated precipitously.

This phenomenon, though not unprecedented in Russian history, presents a far greater threat to not only Mr. Putin’s political career, but also the durability of his resurgent Russia. Or at least this was the general consensus of the report’s authors, Ambassador John Herbst and Professor Sergei Erofeev, and their guests this week at an Atlantic Council panel, Dr. Yevgenia Albats and Ms. Elizaveta Osetinskaya, two Russian affairs and media experts.

There was hardly debate among the panelists regarding the key findings in the report: that Russia’s young, educated, and entrepreneurial are leaving the country in droves, and the Russian economy will suffer as a result. This concurrence was perhaps best illustrated in one of Ambassador Herbst’s opening remarks, where he posed the question, “How could a country which produced so many Nobel laureates in mathematics and science not be among the leaders in creating worldwide companies in high tech areas?”

Unfortunately the report does not explicitly answer this question, but its data provides valuable insight, especially when contextualized by the guests’ anecdotes. The report’s key findings, which were collected from a study that spanned four global cities and four hundred participants, indicate that the most recent “wave” of Russian émigré’s is markedly different than previous “waves.” As mentioned before, the respondents in the study are mostly young adults, entrepreneurial and well educated. On its face, this is nothing more than a conventional brain drain. However, as Professor Erofeev explains, it’s the reasons for their emigration that are most interesting. As he puts it, there are “pull factors” such as better economic opportunities that are in fact intensified, if not entirely eclipsed, by “push factors” like political repression and human rights abuses, as well as diminishing prospects for socio-economic mobility in Russia.

But, Dr. Albats insists “it’s not all that black and white,” going on to explain that much of the reason behind the group’s general youth, ideological principles, and education is that this group had previously been “exposed” to Western life, which contextualizes the report’s finding that the leading reason for leaving Russia among the respondents was “the general political climate.” Further, this gives reason to the respondents’ keen interest in Russian politics and affairs – another quality that sets them apart from earlier “waves” of émigrés.

This poses a problem for Mr. Putin and his government. The “politicization” of Russia’s young and adventurous by liberal, Western societies threatens to undermine the legitimacy of his objectively authoritarian government. According to Dr. Albats, this fact is not lost on the Russian president, and the government’s reaction has been to “paint him as a Messianic leader,” with “open arms” ready to “welcome home” Russian citizens abroad.

And as the rest of the panelists contend, this is hardly an effective strategy for Putin. Of course, the best plan to mitigate the nation’s “brain drain” is to address the entrenched, systemic migration drivers. But this is unlikely. For Putin, addressing these migration drivers would, in large part, mean a surrendering of power. Yet, Dr. Albats offers a somewhat comforting claim, that Putin’s regime “will eventually collapse,” and its replacement by a liberal political system will “be a call to Russians in search of values” such as honesty, freedom and democracy.

The full report from the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center can be found here.