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Russia's Net Tightens Around Dissidents Sheltering In Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz activists take part in a gathering at the Ukrainian Embassy in Bishkek in a show of support for Ukraine, one year after Russia launched its full-scale military invasion, on February 24.
Kyrgyz activists take part in a gathering at the Ukrainian Embassy in Bishkek in a show of support for Ukraine, one year after Russia launched its full-scale military invasion, on February 24.

BISHKEK -- Russian activist Yevgenia Shamina received a panicked phone call on June 5 from a friend of Aleksei Rozhkov, an anti-Kremlin, anti-war political emigre living in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, after Rozhkov stopped returning her phone calls.

“She suggested that [Rozhkov] might have been detained and taken away to Russia,” Shamina, who is based in Georgia, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.

That assumption proved to be correct.

A notice that confirmed his status as a defendant in a court hearing in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region appeared on the court’s website that same day.

After finding a lawyer who had gained access to Rozhkov in Russian detention, Shamina learned the details of the activist’s arrest, which was carried out by Kyrgyz security services.

“[The lawyer told me] that he was detained early in the morning in the rented apartment by [five to seven people], a relatively large number of operatives. They immediately took away his equipment, phone, computer. He wasn’t allowed to contact anyone. They told [him] to take all his things with him, but they didn't let him pack properly,” Shamina said.

Aleksei Rozhkov
Aleksei Rozhkov

Rozhkov, who fled to Kyrgyzstan last year while awaiting trial, is one of three Russian political activists known to have been detained in Bishkek in recent weeks.

All of them are opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and are involved in criminal cases back in their homeland.

The arrests come amid signs of tightening cooperation between Bishkek and Moscow, which according to Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry now extends to the use of Chinese-manufactured facial-recognition systems installed in Bishkek and other Kyrgyz cities.

This new development appears to have struck fear into Russian political activists who fled to the Central Asian country -- in some cases more than a year ago -- in order to escape growing repression and the threat of being sent to fight in Ukraine.

“We lived normally; nobody was seized. And now, literally in the space of 10 days, they suddenly seized [three people],” said Stas Zakharkin, a Russian journalist who moved to Kyrgyzstan after Putin’s mobilization order last fall.

Zakharkin told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that some of his compatriots are now leaving Kyrgyzstan because the country is “becoming like Belarus,” which is Russia’s most doggedly loyal ally in the former Soviet space. As many as 30,000 Russian citizens fled to Kyrgyzstan during the first year of the war.

“Apparently, something has changed,” Zakharkin said.

Neither Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry nor the State Committee for National Security responded to requests for comment.

Enemies Of The Kremlin

While Rozhkov is facing trial for burning down a military recruitment office -- an offense that he has not denied and that Russian authorities equate to terrorism -- his two compatriots are seemingly being punished for less radical forms of activism.

Alena Krylova has been held in detention since June 4 after she was arrested while walking in the center of the Kyrgyz capital, according to an account published by the independent Russian media outlet SOTA.

She is officially charged with helping establish an organization that Russian authorities deem extremist, whose name translates as Left Resistance.

If the fate of another activist known as a founder of that organization is anything to go by, Krylova risks a lengthy stint in a Russian jail.

Daria Polyudova, a recognized political prisoner and all-round gadfly to the Kremlin, has been incarcerated since 2020 and was already serving out a six-year prison sentence on extremism charges when she was handed a fresh nine-year prison sentence in connection with her forming and leading Left Resistance in December.

But Krylova, who fled to Kyrgyzstan even before Russia’s war with Ukraine broke out, is still waiting on her fate. She has applied for asylum in Kyrgyzstan and cannot be deported while her case is being considered.

The third Russian activist known to have been detained by Kyrgyz law enforcement is Lev Skoryakin, who is wanted by Russian authorities in relation to a 2021 protest outside a building belonging to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow.

Lev Skoryakin
Lev Skoryakin

Like Krylova, Skoryakin is being represented in Kyrgyzstan by Marat Kydyrov, a lawyer for the Bishkek-based Adilet legal clinic. Kydyrov told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that Skoryakin has also applied for asylum.

Yet a colleague of Skoryakin’s from the Levi Blok (Left Bloc) movement told RFE/RL that Skoryakin did not even participate in the 2021 protest outside the FSB building.

“It is sad that the security forces of Kyrgyzstan, at the request of their 'colleagues' from Russia, can seize from the streets in broad daylight a political emigre accused in a clearly fabricated criminal case,” said the Left Bloc activist, who preferred to remain anonymous.

No Country For [Russian] Activists

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and increasing domestic repression has coincided with a notable crackdown in Kyrgyzstan, traditionally the freest of the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia and officially neutral in relation to the Russian-Ukrainian war.

In recent months, journalists and NGOs have been pushing back against two Kremlin-style laws that parliament is tipped to pass this year. One is a law on noncommercial organizations that closely mirrors Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents” passed in 2012.

Another would impose fresh constraints on Kyrgyz media, whose grim plight saw the country fall 50 places in the latest rankings published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Aziza Abdirasulova says activists cannot expect help from parliament, which she said is too busy debating whether or not to ban Kyrgyz women younger than 23 from leaving the country.
Aziza Abdirasulova says activists cannot expect help from parliament, which she said is too busy debating whether or not to ban Kyrgyz women younger than 23 from leaving the country.

While some Kyrgyz observers complain that Russia is actively influencing the darkening political environment in its impoverished ally, others maintain that the administration of President Sadyr Japarov is craftily taking advantage of opportunities created by the Kremlin’s war to eliminate what remains of local civil society and political opposition.

Whatever the case, Russian political activists living in Bishkek, like their Kyrgyz counterparts, have witnessed freedoms shrinking in the country in real time.

One example of this trend is the apparent state intimidation of the Krasnaya Krysha (Red Roof) Russian anti-war creative collective, which was formed in Bishkek last year.

A March report by Eurasianet noted the detention of at least one of the group’s members after a protest in the Kyrgyz capital on the one-year anniversary of the war on February 24.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov during a meeting at the Kremlin on May 8.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov during a meeting at the Kremlin on May 8.

Members of the collective have also spoken of regular visits to the premises they are using by local law enforcement, who they said warned them to refrain from their activism.

And last week saw yet another freedom-of-expression scandal related to the war.

Popular Russian rock band Pornofilmy announced on Instagram that it was effectively barred from holding a June 10 concert in Bishkek, during which the group was expected to double down on its anti-war stance.

The band said the concert had been canceled after “security services came making threats at the club where we intended to play.”

Recognizing The Face Of A Police State

Kyrgyz security services have long benefited from strong institutional connections with Russia’s FSB and are seen as an important lever of Russian influence in-country, as well as a power center in the Kyrgyz body politic.

In a disturbing detail, the activist Shamina claimed that Rozhkov was told by officers that he might be tortured when he was taken to a department in the State Committee for National Security on the day of his arrest.

“And he heard the cries of some other people who were being beaten,” Shamina told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, again citing her conversation with Rozhkov’s lawyer.

Russian activist Yevgenia Shamina
Russian activist Yevgenia Shamina

News several years ago that Kyrgyzstan’s government was upgrading its surveillance capacities with facial-recognition systems supplied by China, meanwhile, was greeted with groans from local rights defenders.

They complained at the time that the system could be abused by unreformed and uninhibited law enforcement.

Those fears have now surely been realized after the Interior Ministry said on June 13 that it had begun working through a database of persons wanted by governments of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a Russia-led regional organization.

The ministry claimed their Russian colleagues had provided it with data on more than 85,000 wanted individuals and boasted that 57 people had been delivered to Kyrgyz police precincts since June 2 as a result of the effort.

Although the ministry’s statement did not mention them by name, Rozhkov, Skoryakin, and Krylova are understood to be the four foreigners -- three from Russia and one from Uzbekistan -- that the ministry says it has detained since the system was launched.

Unfortunately for Russian activists in Kyrgyzstan, there are few institutional checks on the Kyrgyz police and security services these days.

Veteran Kyrgyz rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that activists could clearly not expect help from parliament, which she said is too busy debating whether or not to ban Kyrgyz women younger than 23 from leaving the country.

“Our parliament will discuss anything…but not the issue of protecting thousands of people who have come here because they want peace and do not want to fight,” Abdirasulova said, noting that anti-war and anti-Kremlin activists in Kyrgyzstan “can be arrested at any moment.”

Written by Chris Rickleton based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service
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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service is an award-winning, multimedia source of independent news and informed debate, covering major stories and underreported topics, including women, minority rights, high-level corruption, and religious radicalism.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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