Accessibility links

Breaking News

Anti-War Russians Abroad Fear Kremlin Covertly Pressuring Hosts To Send Them Back

Artyom Vazhenkov, a former coordinator of the banned Open Russia foundation, has been in exile since 2021. After initially escaping to Georgia, he has since settled in Germany.
Artyom Vazhenkov, a former coordinator of the banned Open Russia foundation, has been in exile since 2021. After initially escaping to Georgia, he has since settled in Germany.

Late last month, the authorities in Serbia refused to extend the long-term residency there of St. Petersburg district councilman Vladimir Volokhonsky.

An outspoken opponent of the Kremlin's February 2022 full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, Volokhonsky has lived in the Balkan country for more than one year. He and two other émigré Russians are the co-founders of the Russian Democratic Society, which regular holds events to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies.

"I don't think they will send me away from here," Volokhonsky told RFE/RL when asked whether he fears extradition to Russia, where increasingly anti-war dissent is being punished with long prison terms. "Serbia, after all, remains a country that more or less observes normal procedures and extradition from here is a complicated matter."

However, he said, border officials recently tried to prevent him from reentering Serbia after a trip abroad. Although his lawyer was able to secure his admission and is filing an appeal against the refusal to extend his residency permit, Volokhonsky worries that such tactics could be the result of backdoor pressure by Russian security forces targeting dissidents.

"How extensively the practice of refusing residence extensions and blocking entry into the country will be extended to lesser-known activists remains to be seen," he said.

As the full-scale war in Ukraine continues into its second year with no clear end in sight, many of the anti-war Russians who fled the country in the early days of the invasion -- particularly those who fled to former Soviet countries like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan or to countries with persistent links to Putin's government like Serbia, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) -- see worrying signs that Moscow may be pressuring their host governments to force dissidents to return and face retribution.

"If a person has been declared a 'foreign agent' [by Russia] or is connected with an organization that has been labeled 'extremist' or 'undesirable,' I would recommend that they make their way to Europe at the first possibility," said Artyom Vazhenkov, a former coordinator of the banned Open Russia foundation who has been in exile since 2021. After initially escaping to Georgia, he has since settled in Germany.

'It Is Unimaginable'

Early last month, several pro-Kremlin Telegram channels reported that the Kremlin had reached "several confidential agreements" with the U.A.E., "including about fugitives hiding in the U.A.E. who are of interest in one way or another to the FSB," the report stated, referring to Russia's domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service. "They include the activization of various mechanisms for their relocation to the Russian Federation."

"So far Moscow has agreed on mechanisms for the return of criminals and activists with the U.A.E., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia," the report continues. "Soon the mechanisms will begin working with Turkey, Georgia, and Mongolia."

Negotiations are also under way, according to the report, with Serbia and Thailand.

"It can be supposed that by this means the information space is being 'cleaned' ahead of the presidential election to minimize threats from outside for, shall we say, the main candidate," it added, referring to Russia's March 2024 presidential election in which Putin is expected to seek and win a fifth term as president. The purported effort, the report added, is being coordinated by the Russian presidential administration.

Independent demographers Aleksei Raksha and Yulia Florinskaya have estimated the total emigration from Russia in 2022 at between 400,000 and 800,000 people. About 100,000 Russians left for Georgia, with a similar figure departing for Kazakhstan. At least 50,000 moved to Serbia; 40,000 to Armenia; and more than 30,000 each to Israel, Kyrgyzstan, and the countries of the European Union.

Aleksandr Morozov, a researcher with the Boris Nemtsov Russian Studies Center at Charles University in Prague, says Russian dissidents abroad have little reason to fear.

Aleksandr Morozov
Aleksandr Morozov

"No country is going to hand over political activists to Russia," he told RFE/RL. "It is unimaginable, even if a criminal case has been opened on a charge of extremism."

Governments around the world, he added, are aware how "loosely" Russia uses terms like "extremist" and "terrorism." Under wartime conditions, lawyers should have little trouble in almost all countries fighting against deportation.

"Rumors about some sort of agreements that we have seen on Kremlin Telegram channels should be viewed as anti-emigration measures," he said. "Most likely it is just the result of an order from Putin to stop people from fleeing the country."

'Loyalty To The Kremlin'

Russian activist Alyona Krylova was arrested in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on June 4. A former spokeswoman for the For Human Rights NGO in Russia, she is also a co-founder of an organization called Levy Soprotivleniye (Left Resistance), which has been deemed an extremist organization by the Russian government. In Russia, she has been charged with creating an extremist organization and could face up to six years in prison.

"Softer sentences are also possible," Krylova's lawyer, Marat Kydyrov, said on July 30. "Such as a fine, public service, or house arrest. So she has chosen extradition in hopes of getting a more lenient sentence. We are fulfilling her request and not filing appeals."

Kydyrov added that he expects her extradition in the near future, adding that her husband remains in Kyrgyzstan.

The Left Resistance group has carried out numerous protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Fellow Left Resistance activist Lev Skoryakin was also detained in Bishkek in June and is fighting against extradition to Russia. His lawyers told RFE/RL they had also helped him apply for refugee status. He faces "hooliganism" charges in Russia.

On June 6, Bishkek acknowledged it had deported Russian anti-war activist Aleksei Rozhkov. He is accused of an arson attack on a military recruiting center outside Yekaterinburg in March 2022 and could face up to 15 years in prison.

Aleksei Rozhkov
Aleksei Rozhkov

Ilya Shumanov, the general director of the NGO Transparency International in Russia, sees Rozhkov's deportation and the other arrests as the result of "pressure by the Russian authorities on the Kyrgyz government, which is prepared to comply to demonstrate its loyalty to the Kremlin."

The current "model of cooperation" is "the collaboration of the law enforcement agencies" of both countries, he told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"And it isn't just Kyrgyzstan," he added. "We are hearing similar stories from Kazakhstan and Armenia."

Shumanov acknowledges that the number of countries willing to extradite political activists to Russia is very small because "doing so can lead to negative consequences in the international community."

In March, however, the Kyrgyzstan-based informal organization Krasnaya Krysha, a civic initiative by Russian activist émigrés and volunteers, closed down, complaining of intense pressure by an array of Kyrgyz authorities such as the Tax Service and the municipal utilities provider. Most importantly, activists say agents of the Anti-Extremism and Illegal Migration Service threatened to deport them.

Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Kazakhstan in June signed a tripartite agreement on the exchange of personal data. Under the pact, governments will provide, upon request, information about the citizenship, registered property, legal obligations, and criminal records of people within their jurisdiction.

Human rights activists expressed alarm about the possible ramifications of the agreement on anti-war Russian dissidents and young men who fled Russia to avoid military mobilization. Russia reportedly asked Kyrgyzstan for information on some 85,000 people, and that request may have led to the detention of Krylova and Skoryakin.

'Enough Work To Do'

In Serbia, Russian anti-war activist Volokhonsky says the authorities "clearly don't like" any political activity that could rile the Kremlin.

"As for me personally, I have felt unsafe in Serbia several times. Last winter, someone drew a large Z on my door," he said, referring to a symbol used by the Russian government and its allies to demonstrate support for the invasion of Ukraine. "Unlike in Russia, though, the police at least tried to protect me as much as they could. If you go out on the streets to protest here, the police will protect you."

He adds, however, that in view of his latest run-in with the authorities, he is reconsidering earlier plans to seek asylum in Germany.

Alyona Lakomkina
Alyona Lakomkina

Alyona Lakomkina fled Russia in May 2022 after her home in the city of Tver was searched and she was detained for her work in the organization of imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. As soon as she was released after interrogation, she flew first to Kyrgyzstan and later to Armenia.

She recalls a touching moment when she called her father from the airport to say good-bye.

"For the first time in my life, he told me that he was proud of me for what I was doing," Lakomkina told RFE/RL. "And he ordered me not to come back until all this was over."

Now, however, the activist says she does not feel "100 percent safe" in Armenia. She believes there are Russian FSB officers at most Armenian border crossings and inside Armenia itself.

For now, she says, the Russian criminal case in which she is still officially considered a "witness" has been frozen.

"But if they file criminal charges and issue a warrant, I might find myself facing deportation," she said. "But I more or less know what I would do if that happened."

Lakomkina says many anti-war Russians in Armenia are certain the local authorities would hand them over if Russia requested it. But she puts her faith on Armenian civil society, saying there are activists in the country "who won't let anything bad happen."

The last time she communicated with the interrogator handling her case in Russia by e-mail, he seemed to downplay fears that she might be extradited.

"He said that he already has enough work to do considering the situation inside the country," she explained.

Maksim Ivantsov left Russia for Georgia on the first day of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He says he isn't afraid of being deported, but that he doesn't feel secure. He worries that if he left the country, he might not be allowed to reenter.

"If a person has been labeled a foreign agent or an extremist, it is very likely that he might be denied entry into Georgia," he said. "But they wouldn't just hand someone over. There are too many big minuses for Georgia in that, such as a worsening of relations with the European Union and the United States."

The authorities in Georgia would also face a significant political backlash, as most Georgians view the Russian government negatively.

"I think that as long as Georgia is holding elections, there won't be cases of extradition here," he said.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Anton Starikov of RFE/RL's North.Realities and Kunduz Kysylzharova of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.