KYIV -- Vladimir Putin has asked for political asylum in Ukraine -- sort of.
It’s not actually the Russian president, but Roman Roslovtsev -- an anti-Kremlin activist known for staging one-man protests against Russia’s strict law on public assembly while wearing a rubber Putin mask -- who is asking Ukraine to provide him sanctuary.
Roslovtsev fled Moscow around noon on August 20, leaving the room he rented in the Russian capital and all of his belongings -- including the mask -- behind, he told RFE/RL in an interview in Kyiv on August 22. He took with him only his Russian “internal passport,” some cash, and the clothes on his back. Fearing Russian security services were listening to his phone calls, he didn’t even tell his mother.
A friend ferried him into Belarus by car and he approached the Ukrainian border just before midnight, Roslovtsev said, making his way on foot before hitching a ride on a truck.
There Roslovtsev told Ukrainian border guards and a security-services officer: “Please, I want political asylum in Ukraine.”
A spokesman for Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service, Oleh Slobodyan, confirmed to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service on August 21 that Roslovtsev requested political asylum at passport control at the Novi Yarylovichi crossing in northern Ukraine, on the border with Belarus.
After letting Roslovtsev enter Ukraine, border guards treated him to coffee and put him on the first bus to Kyiv, where he arrived -- exhausted but feeling free -- at around 10 a.m. on August 21. “I feel good [in Kyiv]…I am safe,” he said.
Born and raised in Moscow, Roslovtsev, 36, trained as an accountant and wasn’t overtly political until the start of Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement late in 2013. Seeing Ukrainians flood the streets of Kyiv to protest corruption and abuse of power, he said, impassioned him. When Russia adopted a harsh new protest law a few months later, he saw an opportunity to do the same in his country.
Wearing a Putin mask and carrying a sign adorned with the phrase “I’m not afraid of 212.1” – the new article in Russia’s Criminal Code under which people convicted of violating tight restrictions on public gatherings can face up to five years in prison -- Roslovtsev strode through Moscow’s Red Square toward the Kremlin. Within minutes he was grabbed by police.
But his protest drew the attention of activists online -- so he did it again, and again he was stopped by police. And then again with the same result. In all, Roslovtsev has been detained 21 times -- 13 times while wearing the Putin mask and eight without.
The legislation added to Russia’s Criminal Code in July 2014 is part of a series of laws designed to curb opposition demonstrations like the anti-Putin “Bolotnaya” protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 and keep the Kremlin’s critics at bay.
The law was met with sharp criticism by rights groups. Amnesty International called it “draconian,” while Human Rights Watch said it is an attempt to “criminalize public criticism.”
Roslovtsev said he had been planning his escape since his last political protest, on June 10, which earned him 30 days in detention -- the maximum for an administrative offense. He was fed up with what he called persecution by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB, and “the inability to continue protest activity in Russia.”
He was also frustrated that authorities did not bring charges against him for his last performance. He had hoped a criminal case would be opened and a public trial would ensue. In court, he said, he could have fully exposed “the absurdities of this law.”
Instead, he said, FSB officers made clear that if he continued his protests, he would not face criminal charges but would “either be sent to a madhouse or jailed for 30 days.”
“I realized that I did not achieve my desired result; no criminal case was opened,” he said.
When Roslovtsev was released from detention on July 10, he made up his mind to leave Russia.
He plotted for the next month, enlisting the help of friends in Moscow. But when the time had come to make his move on August 20, he hesitated after noticing two suspicious men in the courtyard of his apartment building.
“They posed as neighbors merely smoking near the building entrance. But I did not know them, and I know all the residents of the house,” he said.
When a friend arrived in a car to shuttle him out of his motherland, he decided to leave his suitcases behind for fear of giving away his plan.
Roslovtsev says he chose to seek asylum in Ukraine because it is “actively fighting the Putin regime” and he wants to help the country in that fight.
“I want to enter a Ukrainian army unit. I will be very grateful for [the opportunity],” he said, adding that he sees it as a continuation of his protest performance.
Kyiv’s forces are fighting against Russia-backed separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 9,500 people in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and continues despite a cease-fire deal.
If he’s able to join the ranks of a military unit, he said, “I will write on my rifle ‘I’m not afraid of 212.1’ and on my helmet write the word ‘mask,’ and so continue the struggle against the Putin regime.”
There is at least one obstacle that may prove too big to overcome, however: Roslovtsev suffers from thrombophlebitis, a painful inflammation that occurs in leg veins.
“I can serve with it. This is a serious disease, but I live with it,” Roslovtsev insisted. But he also suffers from astigmatism, which impairs his sight and kept him from mandatory military service in Russia.
His first fight, though, will be for his own freedom.
Two Russian activists, citing persecution under the protest law, have been granted political asylum in Eastern Europe. Irina Kalmykova received asylum in Lithuania in May, while Ukraine granted asylum on August 15 to 79-year-old Vladimir Ionov, who was the first person charged under the strict law.
Historically, Ukraine has a poor track record of accepting asylum seekers or even providing adequate protection for them while they are applying.
In 2015, the State Migration Service of Ukraine refused to grant political refugee status to the vast majority of Russian citizens who fled to Ukraine for fear of persecution in their home country. Of 86 Russians who applied last year, seven were granted asylum, according to statistics provided to the BBC’s Ukrainian service in February.
“They come here because they believe that they will find a young post-revolutionary, democratic country, and instead they are faced with the old, post-Soviet bureaucratic system,” Maksim Butkevych, a human rights group Without Borders, which provides legal assistance to asylum seekers, told BBC Ukraine.
The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, wrote in 2013 that Ukraine needed to improve its asylum process to guarantee “effective protection against asylum-seekers being sent back to the countries from which they fled.”
“There is also a need to create conditions for the transparent and fair review of asylum applications, including for instance enhancing the independence of decision-makers,” it added.
But not much has changed since then, says Halya Coynash, a member of the nongovernment Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. “I don’t think [Ukraine’s migration services] do nearly enough,” Coynash said in an interview with RFE/RL.
President Petro Poroshenko, handing a Ukrainian passport to Russian-born journalist Yekaterina Sergatskova in April 2015, said that he would urge Ukraine’s parliament to pass legislative amendments to simplify the procedure of granting citizenship and providing political asylum for people persecuted in their homeland, particularly Russians.
However, as of August 23, no such legislation had been introduced in parliament.
Still, Yuriy Shulipa, a human rights lawyer who is assisting Roslovtsev with his asylum request, is confident Ukraine will rule in the activist’s favor.
Because of his stance against Putin and willingness to fight against his regime, and given the fact that one Russian activist persecuted under the protest law has been given asylum here, “I think [Roslovtsev] has a 100 percent chance,” Shulipa told RFE/RL.
Mykhaylo Shtekel of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report