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Bashkir ethnic activist Ruslan Gabbasov says he has left Russia and is seeking asylum in Lithuania (file photo).

Bashkir ethnic activist Ruslan Gabbasov has left Russia for Lithuania, where he has asked for asylum, Gabbasov told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities on December 6.

Gabbasov said his decision was influenced by pressure from Russian authorities, who tried to connect him with criminal cases in Russia's Bashkortostan region.

According to Gabbasov, the authorities have been trying to incriminate him for his participation in the activities of the banned organization Bashkort. Before the organization was declared extremist and banned, Gabbasov was in the group's leadership.

The civil activist, who is a witness in one of the criminal cases, said more than 50 percent of the questions during interrogations concerned the Bashkort organization, and his name also appeared during the questioning within a Karmaskala case.

The authorities say there was an ethnic conflict between Bashkirs and Armenians, and Bashkort activists were allegedly instigators of the conflict.

Gabbasov, who is well-known in Bashkortostan, said he was summoned in September to the Center for Combating Extremism for interrogation as a witness in the criminal case, which he said he has nothing to do with.

"The investigator's questions mainly concerned the Bashkort organization: when it was established, what status I had there, the goals and objectives of the organization," Gabbasov told Idel.Realities.

He said he answered some questions but refused to answer others based on Article 51 of the Russian Constitution that says no one is obliged to testify against himself.

Gabbasov said he concluded from the questioning that the authorities' interest in Bashkort was an indication that he could be arrested.

“It is clear that these questions are not just being asked,” he said, adding that the situation in Bashkortostan remains unstable.

He noted that in November the former leader of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's headquarters in Bashkortostan, Lilia Chanysheva, was transferred to a detention center in the Moscow region, and activist Ramila Saitova in November was sentenced to three years in a colony settlement after a court in Bashkortostan found her guilty of calling for extremist activities.

Gabbasov participated in the Forum of Free Russia, which took place in Lithuania on December 2-3. He was a speaker of a panel that discussed federalism in Russia.

Russian rapper Oxxxymiron

Russian rap is praised by fans and admirers as reflecting the sentiments, and often the disillusionment, of the country’s youth. It’s also this element, critics say, that is increasingly bringing unwanted attention from the authorities.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have focused increased scrutiny on popular performers whom senior officials have described as a corrupting influence on society.

Last week, they went further.

On December 5, reports surfaced that the head of Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, had ordered a probe into the work of Oxxxymiron and Noize MC, two of the country’s most popular rappers.

Russian rapper Noize MC
Russian rapper Noize MC

An unnamed “patriots’ group” had filed a complaint, claiming that their lyrics contained extremism and “efforts to rehabilitate Nazism,” as well as promoting a “negative attitude toward employees of law enforcement organs,” the Investigative Committee said.

The alleged text of the complaint was first published on December 2 by blogger Dmitry Yakushev, and it referred to previous investigations into other Russian rappers as an instructive precedent for reining in their work.

In particular, the letter cited a case against Morgenshtern, a popular rapper who in a controversial October interview said that President Vladimir Putin’s government spends far too much on annual World War II-themed celebrations.

Amid an uproar over those comments in Russia, a country where victory in World War II is widely considered sacred, Morgenshtern issued an apology. But Bastrykin had already issued an order for Morgenshtern’s remarks to be checked for violations of the law, and soon after, Morgenstern reportedly fled Russia.

The “patriots’ group” that allegedly stands behind the latest complaint thanked Bastrykin for “drawing attention to Morgenshtern and leading him to quickly leave Russia,” the news outlet Meduza reported. And online commenters began voicing concerns that Noise MC and Oxxxymiron may also feel pressured to leave.

The campaign targeting Russia’s rappers accelerated during protests in Moscow against the exclusion of opposition candidates from city council elections in 2019.

Rappers were among the celebrities speaking out against a perceived purge of the political field. Among them were Noize MC and Oxxxymiron, who attended court cases against participants in the demonstrations and publicly called for their release.

They were praised for their public stance at a time when protesters were facing long jail terms, and some rappers later participated in other anti-government rallies, most recently in support of imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny in April.

On his latest album, the first release in six years, Oxxxymiron sings about the mounting campaign against people declared “foreign agents” by the state, rapping that a foreign agent in Russia is anyone “who isn’t either protected or a policeman.” He also mocks Russian officials accused of plagiarism, saying that his university diploma is “so bad that I could become culture minister.”

The probe ordered by Bastrykin is short of a formal criminal investigation, and it’s unclear whether it will lead to charges against the rappers. But the story with Noize MC and Oxxxymiron took a bizarre turn late on December 5, when the blogger Yakushev published a post saying that the alleged complaint by a “patriots’ group” had actually been a prank.

“This was a joke,” he wrote. “A fabricated complaint, deliberately written in an idiotic way, a satire of our times.”

The logic of the system, critics say, means that such a confession may be too little, too late for the rappers accused of violating the law through their use of words.

But in later comments to the news outlet Meduza, Yakushev said, “I had no idea that things would be perceived this way.”

RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time contributed to this report.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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