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Russia: Ex-Kremlin Journalist Talks From U.K. Asylum

Yelena Tregubova in an undated publicity photo for her book "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger" (AFP) Five years ago, she was the talk of the Russian publishing world: a sassy young reporter unafraid of spilling the beans about what really goes on behind the walls of the Kremlin.

Today, Yelena Tregubova lives in a secret location in the United Kingdom, where she fled after her writing made her many new enemies.

It's been just a week since her asylum application was accepted, and the former "Kommersant" reporter has been told not to reveal her address -- even to her family in Russia.

"I feel huge relief, as you can imagine, because for a year I was living with this massive uncertainty" as U.K. authorities processed her asylum request, Tregubova says. "That's to say I hoped against hope, but couldn't be 100 percent sure, that it would be approved. The British government could just have decided to wash their hands of this matter, they could just have said, 'Why would we want to get involved with this journalist and her problems? Let's just keep on good terms with the Kremlin and forget about her asylum application.'"

Tregubova's asylum victory comes at a critical time in British-Russian relations. Some say the relationship is at its most strained since the Cold War. Russia has refused to extradite the man wanted in Britain for the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko -- a former security service agent-turned-British citizen, who was poisoned in London in 2006.

Russia, in turn, accuses Britain of harboring wanted men, including business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, and Chechen separatists, including Akhmed Zakayev.

Both Russia and Britain have expelled diplomats. More recently, the British Council has been forced to close its doors in Russia. Last month, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the Moscow offices of the British oil major BP.

'Kremlin Digger'

For Tregubova, however, Britain has become a refuge, and her home for the foreseeable future.

"I think that while the current regime is in power -- the one created by [President Vladimir] Putin, as the [former] head of the secret services -- I won't be able to return to Russia," she says. "The door is closed for me, because I would be in mortal danger [if I went back]."

Tregubova's troubles began after the publication in 2003 of her hugely successful "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger," a book that dished the dirt on life in the Kremlin. There is the story of an intimate lunch with Putin, then head of the FSB, at a sushi bar in downtown Moscow. "I couldn't tell whether he was trying to recruit me, or chat me up," she writes.

Tregubova recounts the bungling attempts of factory bosses to impress the president on regional tours, and presidential blunders that his PR men try to cover up.

But as sales of the book skyrocketed, Tregubova lost her job, was thrown out of the Kremlin reporters pool, and started to receive death threats. An explosion went off outside her door that she says was certainly intended to kill her. Then, a year ago, she got another threat.

"I was abroad at the time, and I got information [that] I would be in mortal danger if I returned to my homeland," she says. "Of course, I knew that there was a difference between bravery and suicide. I'm not a kamikaze."

She confesses that "frankly, I didn't think that when my book was published these nasty goings-on would go so far. Who would have thought that people would go to such lengths for revenge?"

Journalist Deaths

An alarming number of journalists in Russia have learned the hard way just how strong the opposition to their work can be. Since Putin came to power in 2000, more than a dozen journalists have been killed in contract killings -- the most recent occurring just last month, and the most sensational being the slaying of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Forty-seven journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1992, according to the international Committee To Protect Journalists, while reports of beatings and intimidation are common.

Often enough, the government plays a prominent role in the pressures faced by the media.

Natalya Morar, a correspondent for the weekly "Novoye vremya" who has Moldovan citizenship, was barred last month from entering Russia for a second time. She was prevented from entering Russia in December on national-security grounds after writing articles about alleged corruption within the Kremlin.

And as of April 7, accredited journalists have been barred from open access to the Russian White House, the main government office complex in Moscow. All official press communications will be distributed by fax and e-mail and published on the government's official website, ending the need for journalists to physically enter the building except for official events.

Tregubova says she despairs of the current state of the media in Russia.

"It's probably not very ethical for me, sitting so far away, in a civilized European country, where human rights are guaranteed, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are taken for granted -- it wouldn't be ethical for me to criticize those colleagues of mine still in my homeland," Tregubova says. "But frankly, I think that what's going on there is less like journalism than some sort of harem."

The New 'Samizdat'

She says even the boldest of her Kremlin-reporter friends have been reduced to writing flattering anecdotes about the president. No one dares to criticize or write anything different today, she says, because they fear the consequences.

As for television, she says, it has become a "nightmare similar to what was shown in Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev's era." Russia's three main television channels are either state-controlled or owned by Kremlin-friendly enterprises, which means you never see news that's critical of the government, Tregubova says.

What is interesting, she says, is that samizdat -- the illicit reports published during the Soviet era that were critical of the regime -- have started to reappear, but in a different format.

"In fact, the strange thing today is that the Internet is playing the role of publisher of samizdat," Tregubova says. "I think that the future journalism textbooks will reflect this. Have a look, for example, at the website -- content-wise it is human rights-oriented per se. In fact, this is just what existed before -- underground 'chronicle of the current events' or chronicle of what was going on during the pre-reform times in the Soviet Union."

Recently alarms have been raised that the government -- after becoming wary of modern methods of disseminating information -- has stepped up efforts to monitor and control electronic communications and the Internet. In addressing a recent Internet forum, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev reportedly told the audience that the government must consider "the delicate question of the relationship between freedom of speech and responsibility."

"I'm afraid that the Russian media must go through the very same difficult path it went through [at the collapse of the Soviet Union]," Tregubova says. "Just as when Yeltsin's reforms began, we built journalism with our own hands, we started a new style, we tried to study western journalism -- so the next generation will have to do the same thing in 10, 15 years' time, when the current regime has gone."

Today, Tregubova is writing another book about her experiences. It keeps her busy, she says, and stops her thinking about the things she misses about Russia: "so many things, it's too painful to talk about them."

But what she doesn't miss is the way that the country is run today.

"I just think it's very sad that the history of reform in Russia, the attempt at liberalization -- it's all over. This great historical opportunity has been lost," Tregubova says. "Russia has gone back to being a colony for former KGB agents, who've changed in name only -- a fuel-rich colony for a small group of oil and gas merchants who give nothing of their riches to anyone living outside the capital."