Despite its claims to be joining the community of democratic nations, Russia is showing signs of reviving the Cold War-era concept of the “closed city” – an urban area with access restricted to only those approved by government authorities.
According to an order from Alexander Lebed, former top Russian paratroop general and presently governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, the city of Norilsk has been designated as having “strategic importance,” and access to the city now will be closely regulated, according to reports from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Under the restrictions, as of Monday the city is closed to all non-Russians – except Belarusians. Any foreigner wishing to travel to Norilsk must first obtain special permission from the FSB, the Russian state security police.
Lebed stated that he will demand that all foreigners – whether living as residents or presently visiting – leave Norilsk.
Lebed, however, recognized Belarus’ special relationship with Moscow when he specified that only Belarusians may enter Norilsk, while forbidding all other non-Russians, including citizens of other post-Soviet republics.
Russia and Belarus have formed the Union of Russia and Belarus, which is presided over by the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, a self-described admirer of the communist dictator Josef Stalin.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov had earlier in the month signed a decree restricting access to Norilsk, giving it the status of a closed city, as it had been before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Under Kasyanov’s order, travel agents are forbidden to sell train or airline tickets to Norilsk, unless authorized by the FSB.
Officials in Norilsk, however, deny that their city is again “closed.” A deputy to the mayor of Norilsk, Nikolai Bova, stated that the city is merely imposing tighter restrictions on foreigners due to the city’s “strategic importance,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Soviet Union used the system of “closed cities” to insure secrecy in the development of nuclear and other forms of highly sensitive technology. Many observers presumed that the triumph of democratic thought in Russia would lead to the end of the system of “closed cities” and the restrictions on free movement that they imply.
In reaction to Kasyanov’s restrictions, Norilsk’s mayor, Oleg Budarin, stated that he welcomes the order and declared that the city is presently “full of unwanted nonresidents and foreigners,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Norilsk is a city located in a mineral-rich region of Arctic Siberia and is estimated to have a population ranging from 200,000 to 300,000.
Recognition of the city’s “strategic importance” is based upon its importance as a center for mineral and metal production.
Founded in 1935, Norilsk produces large quantities of nickel, platinum, copper, cobalt and coal, and was the site for one of the Soviet era’s notorious labor camps.
At the same time Russian authorities decided to severely restrict travel to Norilsk, the Russian Foreign Ministry has taken another step reminiscent of the Soviet past.
Moscow has decided that its ambassadors and senior diplomats will wear the dark-colored, gold trimmed uniforms once used by the diplomatic personnel of the defunct USSR.
The Russian Foreign Ministry first contacted the Russian couturier Vyacheslav Zaitsev to produce the uniforms. Upon Zaitsev’s refusal, the government turned to a manufacturer specializing in uniforms, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.