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Seeking Asylum In Ukraine, Russian Dissidents Get Cold Shoulder

Pyotr Lyubchenkov, a political activist from Russia seeking asylum in Ukraine, faces extremism charges back home.
Pyotr Lyubchenkov, a political activist from Russia seeking asylum in Ukraine, faces extremism charges back home.

When Russian psychologist Pyotr Lyubchenkov started receiving telephone threats and was detained by the police for 10 days after posting several online comments denouncing Moscow's support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, he knew it was time to leave.

In June 2014, he fled Russia for what he thought would be a better, safer life in Ukraine.

But a year and a half later, his successive applications for political asylum have all been rejected and the Ukrainian authorities are now seeking to extradite him to Russia.

Lyubchenkov, who faces prison on extremism charges in his home country, has a word of warning for other embattled Russian opposition activists. "I strongly advise them against traveling to Ukraine and asking for political asylum," he said in a telephone interview from Odesa. "If you are in danger, you had better ask another country. Ukraine is not a safe place for refugees from Russia.

Amid a deepening Kremlin crackdown on dissent, more than 200 Russians who have fallen afoul of the authorities in their country have fled to Ukraine since the beginning of 2014, according to the Ukrainian State Migration Service.

Only a handful have been granted political asylum or other forms of protection by Ukrainian authorities.

For the rest, the apparent freedoms gained since the pro-democracy Maidan protests in Kyiv toppled Ukraine's Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 remain elusive.

Ukraine's migration service insists that its screening procedure for asylum applications is fair and impartial. "We are open," spokesman Serhiy Hunko told RFE/RL. "If it is the applicant’s wish, we are ready to consider each case together with the United Nations' refugee agency and human rights organizations, and to listen to the opinion of independent experts."

Some local rights groups are nonetheless alarmed by the massive legal hurdles facing Russian political emigres in Ukraine. "It is unacceptable to not provide asylum for people facing persecution for peaceful opposition activities in their own country," the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group said last week on its website.

"Incredibly, given the ongoing imprisonment of [Nadia] Savchenko, [Oleh] Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, and other Ukrainians, as well as long sentences passed on Russians for peaceful protest, the Migration Service is still claiming that Russia is a democratic country to which activists can be returned," it added.

Prisoner Of Conscience

Russian opposition activist Vyacheslav Martynov, who fled to the northeastern city of Kharkiv in 2014, is among the lucky few. After a protracted legal battle, he was finally granted special protection by Ukrainian authorities several weeks ago.

Martynov landed in hot water with Russian authorities after attempting to organize a rally demanding broader autonomy for the part of southern Russia known as the Kuban together with Lyubchenkov and a third activist, Darya Polyudova.

Vyacheslav Martynov (front), organizer of the March for the Federalization of Kuban, is one of the lucky few.
Vyacheslav Martynov (front), organizer of the March for the Federalization of Kuban, is one of the lucky few.

The three were briefly detained, placed on a terrorist watch list, and charged with extremism.

Polyudova, who chose to stay in Russia, was sentenced to two years in prison in December 2015 on charges of "calling for Russia's territorial integrity infringement" -- a sentence that sparked an outcry from rights groups around the world.

Russia's leading Russian rights organization, Memorial, has since declared Polyudova a prisoner of conscience.

If sent back to Russia, Lyubchenkov risks a similar fate.

Several weeks ago, Russian prosecutors officially asked Ukraine to extradite him at the behest of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

He says he is now hiding from prosecutors in Odesa, who issued a warrant for his arrest in mid-December. "Odesa prosecutors are trying to arrest me and hand me over to Russia because I called for the Kuban to join Ukraine," he said. "This is how absurd the situation is."

Like Martynov, Lyubchenkov has won several court appeals overturning earlier decisions by migration authorities to deny him political asylum. But under Ukrainian law, judges cannot force migration authorities to deliver asylum status, only to reconsider applications.

Olga Kurnosova, another Russian opposition activist who is trying to rebuild her life in Ukraine, attributes the Migration Service's reluctance to help Kremlin critics to what she says is the large number of Moscow sympathizers still serving in its ranks since Yanukovych's ouster.

"The migration service has not undergone any lustration," she said. "People there already served under Yanukovych and they are doing their jobs dishonestly, just like they did under Yanukovych."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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    Tetiana Iakubovych

    Tetiana Iakubovych is an award-winning journalist and senior radio producer for Donbas.Realities of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. She is a program host, the author of many popular multimedia reports and projects, and the director of the documentary My Shift about workers at Chernobyl.

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