If you thought that the demise of the Soviet Union meant the demise of closed, or secret cities, then you’d be wrong. Today, it is thought that there are up to forty closed cities (also referred as ZATO’s, or Zakrytye Administrativno-Territorialnye Obrazovaniia) in Russia, although the Russian government will only confirm the existence of ten. These ten alone are home to 1.7 million people, who are severely restricted in their movements and their ability to participate in the democratic process, compared to their compatriots in neighbouring cities.
Freedom of movement is the biggest practical problem. True, movement generally is still quite restricted in Russia – for example, the need for residential permits means that many people who have moved to Moscow are living there illegally and have limited legal rights – but the issues facing closed cities are a class apart. Roemer Lemaître of the Belgian Institute for International Law [pdf file] observes that:
Apart from the right to freedom of movement the entry and residency restrictions imposed by the ZATO Law infringe directly or indirectly on a considerable number of other rights belonging to natural and legal persons resident within the ZATO as well as to outsiders. Identity checks and searches of bags and vehicles upon entry or exit from the ZATO run afoul of the right to privacy (Article 17 of the ICCPR and Article 8 of the ECHR). According to the same provisions, the right to family life might be violated if someone is not allowed to live with his/her close family because he/she did not get the required security clearance. Limitations on property rights (especially those that largely exclude property rights for outsiders) contradict Article 1 of the First Protocol to the ECHR.
Foreigners also face many restrictions, as this news report about the announcement that the mining city of Norilsk was to become a closed city indicates:
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.
The restrictions placed on residents in closed cities also directly inhibit their ability to participate fully in the democratic process – such as it is in Russia these days. The role of the media, in particular, is heavily restricted:
Federal and local mass media have no access to closed cities. Besides, local media are poorly developed, scanty and usually controlled either by agencies that they belong to, or by commercial price of information. Almost the whole volume of information flow in and out of ZATOs is censoring in order to assure its safety for ZATOs system existence. None of independent pressmen are allowed to visit ZATOs.
I haven’t specifically seen any sources mentioning it, but I would imagine that freedom of association – for example, in the sense of the ability to join protests – is also heavily restricted.
No other democracy today has closed cities. Today, with the exception of Russia, they are the preserve of crackpot dictatorships, like North Korea. Even China doesn’t feel the need to close off whole cities from its own people.
Unless there is something that Russia and North Korea know that the rest of the world doesn’t, I think it is safe to conclude that closed cities are no longer necessary for security. And, if that is the case, then Russia’s justification for restricting the human rights of almost 2 million of its own citizens rings hollow.