Exile or prison: the grim choice facing Russian opposition leaders

MOSCOW – Referring to the dark era of Soviet repression, Russian politicians and journalists are increasingly being driven into exile. ...


MOSCOW – Referring to the dark era of Soviet repression, Russian politicians and journalists are increasingly being driven into exile.

The steady stream of politically motivated emigration that accompanied President Vladimir V. Putin’s two-decade reign has turned into a torrent this year. Opposition figures, their collaborators, rights activists and even independent journalists are increasingly being offered a simple choice: flee or risk prison.

A leading ally of jailed opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny left Russia this month, state media said, adding him to a list of dozens of dissidents and journalists who are believed to have left this year. Taken together, experts say, this is the biggest wave of political emigration in post-Soviet Russian history.

This year’s forced departures are reminiscent of a tactic perfected by the KGB in the last decades of the Soviet Union, when secret police told some dissidents they could go west or east – into exile or in a Siberian prison camp. Now as then, the Kremlin seems to be betting that forcing high-level critics out of the country is less of a headache than imprisoning them, and that Russians abroad are easy to describe as traitors. wick with the West.

“Their strategy is: first, to expel them,” said Dmitry G. Gudkov, a popular Moscow opposition politician who fled in June. “And if you can’t get them out, throw them in jail.”

August 7 Lioubov Sobol, Mr. Navalny’s most important ally who had remained inside Russia, flew to Turkey, pro-Kremlin TV channels reported. Earlier this month, a court sentenced Ms Sobol to a year and a half of travel restrictions, including a ban on leaving the Moscow region. But authorities gave her a few weeks of freedom before the sentence went into effect – a clear signal to Ms Sobol that she had one last chance to get out.

“It is of course best to participate in Russian politics from within Russia,” Ms. Sobol said in a recent interview. “But for now, the risks are too great.”

Speaking to the New York Times on August 5, Ms Sobol admitted that she was considering leaving because she faced jail time in other pending criminal cases. She remained active on social media, commenting on events in Russia, but did not reveal her whereabouts; On Thursday, she announced that an Armenian surgeon had performed a long-delayed operation on her nose.

Andrei Soldatov, who has co-authored a book on the history of Russians abroad, “compatriots”, Along with Irina Borogan, described the practice of pushing back dissidents as a“ very smart tactic ”by the Kremlin. The two have themselves been in self-imposed exile in London since September, after receiving signals that it would be dangerous to return, Soldatov said.

“When people can choose between becoming more radicalized or leaving, people always have a choice and they leave,” he said. “It reduces the pressure on the system. “

This year’s wave of departures – sparked by the crackdown on dissent that followed Mr. Navalny’s return to Russia in January – has included more than a dozen national and regional figures from Mr. Navalny’s movement, which has summer banned as extremist; other opposition activists from across the country; and journalists whose media have been banned or labeled as “foreign agents”.

An investigative journalist, Roman badanin, was on a family vacation in Africa last month when her outlet, Proekt, was declared an “undesirable organization”, making any association with it a potential crime. He considered returning home to face prosecution. It could have made him a political star, but would have thwarted his ability to continue as a journalist, and time in prison “would be my least productive years,” he said.

So Mr. Badanin flew from Morocco to New York, taking little apart from his vacation clothes in hot weather. He stayed with a friend in California and also helped some of his staff leave Russia. Mr Badanin said that when police raided his deputy’s home, the message could not have been clearer: the detective pointedly returned the passport he had found.

The question for new exiles is how to stay relevant at home. Mr Badanin plans to create a media based outside Russia of interest to people in Russia – a challenge because Russian emigrants often break away from their homeland and “only become interesting to each other”.

The former oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in prison after getting into trouble with Mr Putin and now lives in London, said he spent 12 hours a day immersed in communications with people in Russia. He is determined, Khodorkovsky said in a telephone interview, to make sure he does not lose contact with a country he last saw as a free man in 2003.

Two news outlets and a legal rights group in Russia backed by Mr Khodorkovsky shut down this month after organizations linked to him were declared “undesirable.” Andrei Pivorarov, former leader of Mr. Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement, was arrested after taking a flight to Warsaw in May, a sign that not all dissidents are allowed to flee.

“I thought it was imperative to continue working in the open and in public until the last moment, as long as this possibility existed,” Khodorkovsky said. But now, he said, “the risks of such work have become too great.”

As opposition leaders leave, pro-Kremlin media scornfully report their departures. A comment posted to a popular pro-Kremlin account on the Telegram social network, for example, Said the exit of Mrs. Sobol showed that “Navalnyites can only be associated with cowardly rats”.

Mr Navalny’s associates are trying to retain their influence through corruption investigations and live YouTube broadcasts, and by campaigning for a coordinated protest vote in Russia’s September parliamentary elections. But they don’t highlight the fact that they’re overseas.

Ivan Zhdanov, the executive director of Mr. Navalny’s team, left Russia in January, helping to coordinate the protests which followed the return and arrest of Mr. Navalny. He decided not to return after Russian authorities accused him of recruit minors to protest. In a phone interview from a location in Europe he declined to disclose, he argued that the battlefield of Russian politics has largely moved online.

“What is important is what we do, not whether a certain employee or a number of employees has crossed the border into the Russian Federation,” Zhdanov said.

In March, police in southern Russia arrested the father of Mr. Zhdanov, 66, a retired local official on suspicion of abuse of power. He is now imprisoned in the Far North of Russia.

“These are terrorists who have taken a hostage,” Zhdanov said of his father’s arrest, promising that he would not change course.

For Mr Gudkov, the Moscow politician, it was the threat of a prison sentence for a relative that forced him to leave the country.

In June, relatives of the authorities called Mr Gudkov’s wife and father to let them know that he and his 61-year-old aunt were facing jail in a case of allegedly unpaid rent. Despite being a suspect in a criminal investigation, Mr Gudkov was able to get in his car and drive to Ukraine – a move he says eased the pressure on his aunt.

Mr. Gudkov, who served in The Parliament from 2011 to 2016 said that Russian authorities were convinced that too few dissidents were allowed to leave the country during Soviet times, which led to internal political pressures that contributed to the country’s demise.

But officials don’t recognize the importance of the internet, he said.

“Our generals in the security agencies are preparing for the last war,” Gudkov said from his current place of refuge in Bulgaria. “Now if you go, you’re just as well understood, if not better. “

Some critics of Putin would disagree.

Yulia Galyamina, who helped campaign against Referendum last year that allowed Mr Putin to rule until 2036, said she refused to suggest she had to leave when she was under criminal investigation. She was given a two-year suspended prison sentence, preventing her from running for parliament in September. She is now working with another opposition candidate, but stays away from street protests on the advice of her lawyer.

“I’m sorry, but how will it change here if everyone leaves?” ” she said. “When it all begins to crumble, the power will fall into the hands of those who are nearby.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reports.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Exile or prison: the grim choice facing Russian opposition leaders
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