Fright follows flight
A growing number of Russians want to emigrate; but even those who leave have cause for fear
Sergei Guriev admits that his wife was right. Two years ago she left for Paris, saying that it was not safe to live under the regime of President Vladimir Putin. Now the leading Russian economist is joining her. The trigger was a request from the authorities to seize his emails, apparently in preparation for a case against him. His crime is unclear: it may have been giving an expert opinion about the legal status of Yukos, once Russia’s largest oil company, which was spectacularly dismembered in a Kremlin-sponsored raid ten years ago.
Guriev’s departure is part of a trend. Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and opposition leader, says it is too risky to return to Russia. Friends of Alexei Navalny, another opposition leader, fear he has left it too late: he faces jail on trumped-up fraud charges.
The mixture of lawlessness and repression is chilling. Overall, nearly a quarter of Russians want to emigrate. The figure is striking: 22%, up from 13% in 2009. The survey is by the Levada centre, Russia’s best-known opinion pollster, which the authorities are harassing because it receives some money from abroad and is therefore a “foreign agent”.
The unhappiest are the middle classes, who should be the biggest beneficiaries of the boom of the past 13 years: 45% of students and 38% of entrepreneurs want to leave, with the highest figures in Moscow and other big cities. So far emigration is a ripple, not a wave. About three-quarters of the discontented say they will stay put. Only 1% of those surveyed are actually taking practical steps to go.
But will they be safe even abroad? In the last month, three incidents have highlighted the Kremlin’s long reach. Russian opposition leaders meeting in Vilnius suffered repeated public intimidation from what appeared to be a dozen goons from the FSB, the Russian secret service. The Lithuanian authorities did nothing about that episode, or previous ones: Russia seems to be making a practice of sending intelligence and security officers to Lithuania under flimsy journalistic cover for nefarious purposes – and not just against Russian opposition leaders. Lithuania’s spooks have issued a public warning about Russian attempts to exploit social, ethnic and public tensions in the country.
Another shocking incident was in Prague, where the Czech authorities were forced to accede to the extradition of Alexei Torubarov, a Russian businessman who was seeking asylum there. Torubarov is accused of fraud and blackmail by Russian authorities; he says they tried to blackmail him.
When Russia issued an international arrest warrant, Torubarov was taken into custody and then – seemingly prematurely – put on a plane to Russia. However, before it took off, the government’s senior ministers ordered that the extradition be halted.
An extraordinary stand-off, reminiscent of a corny spy thriller, then ensued at Prague airport. The Russian officials accompanying Torubarov refused to release him. Some reports say they drew their weapons. The Czech authorities put a fuel tanker in front of the aircraft to stop it taking off. Eventually, though, they backed down. The plane took off. Torubarov has not been heard of since.
A third incident last month involved a renewed Kremlin attempt to get European countries to arrest Bill Browder, a British financier seeking justice for the whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. Browder has avoided Torubarov’s fate, but it is clear that Russia is systematically abusing Interpol procedures in order to harass its critics abroad, on bogus charges of hooliganism, terrorism or fraud.
The outside world may have limited abilities to curb the Putin regime’s beastliness inside Russia. But it can at least ensure the safety of those who flee it.
Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist.
Lithuanian case shows reach of Russian security state
The harassment of Russian opposition figures in Lithuania has put the spotlight on the increasingly confrontational tactics Moscow is adopting against its enemies and critics abroad. These have ranged from intimidation to, allegedly, assassination.
Russian anti-government figures attending a conference last week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, reported that they were followed, filmed and intimidated by Russian security officers under journalistic cover. This follows a pattern: Lithuania’s State Security Department has identified Russia’s intelligence agencies as being the most active and aggressive in the country.
The Russian security apparatus has become steadily more assertive under Vladimir Putin—himself an ex-KGB officer—such that British and U.S. authorities say that Moscow’s espionage activities are now back up to Cold War levels. However, a relatively recent development has been a surge in activity on the part of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main internal security agency. In 2010, Putin formally gave it permission to operate abroad and since then it has become increasingly visible in its pursuits of the Kremlin’s enemies.
In May, for example, the FSB was reportedly involved in the controversial extradition of Russian businessman Alexei Torubarov from the Czech Republic. Moscow had charged Torubarov with fraud; he himself claimed to have been blackmailed by the FSB. Whatever the truth of the case, he had applied for asylum, but before that process had been resolved, Justice Minister Pavel Blažek ordered him deported to Moscow. On May 2, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, backed by several of his colleagues, tried to prevent this, even after Torubarov had been handed over to Russian officials and was sitting in an Aeroflot jet at Prague’s Havel Airport. In the ensuing confrontation, ground staff were ordered to block the runway with fuel tanker trucks and there was even the prospect that Czech and Russian security forces might exchange fire. Ultimately, however, the aircraft was allowed to depart.
Perhaps most controversial have been the murders of Chechen expatriate supporters of the North Caucasus insurgents in places like Turkey and Austria. It is possible that the attacks were carried out by representatives of the local pro-Moscow regime in Chechnya or the GRU, Russian military intelligence. But even if that were the case, the FSB would have played some role in targeting and approving any “wet work”—which is to say, assassination.
The opposition figures in Vilnius said that they ended up feeling as if they were in “a suburb of Moscow,” harassed with seeming impunity. The concern is growing that the Kremlin, already cracking down on its enemies at home, now feels that all of Europe should be considered its backyard.
Reflex: Preaching costs TOP 09 voters
Prague, June 6 (CTK) – Exalted moralising has been accompanying with differing strength the policy of the Czech conservative government TOP 09 since it was created in 2009 and it is precisely this that has been stripping it of voter support of late, Bohumil Pecinka writes in weekly Reflex out yesterday.
He writes that first, voters of President Milos Zeman were disenchanted after a series of his unfortunate steps soon after he was sworn in in March, but now disillusionment has reached the surroundings of his rival, TOP 09 head and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, Pecinka writes.
The launch of Forum of Karel Schwarzenberg that wants to encourage interest of young people, and not only of them, in social themes and politics, on May 29 was a disappointment, Pecinka writes.
The event only attracted some 50 supporters of Schwarzenberg, who heard moralising talks about politics and the wisdom of young voters that they heard hundreds times before, Pecinka writes.
He writes that about 30 photographers were trying in vain to record at least flickers of the January presidential election campaign that reminded of something between the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist regime and the celebrations of the hockey’s team’s win at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
The awkward situation was ended with an organiser’s call on those present to move to a nearby pub for “beer with Karel” that echoed Schwarzenberg’s meetings with young voters during the election campaign, Pecinka writes.
He writes that most participants felt that something has ended, but no one knew what exactly.
In the latest public opinion poll, Schwarzenberg’s popularity dropped by 9 percent and TOP 09 also markedly lost in two separate polls, Pecinka writes.
He writes that the liberal town voters of Schwarzenberg suffered the first shock when he did not react for many days to the Social Democrat (CSSD) and Communist (KSCM) coup in the Totalitarian Study Regimes Institute (USTR), in which then director Daniel Herman was dismissed earlier this year.
It eventually leaked out that a part of TOP 09 was long preparing for the move, named Herman’s opponents to the institute’s council and in exchange, it obtained the post of USTR deputy director, Pecinka writes.
Top 09 bases its success on Prague where it gained every fourth vote in the mid-2010 general election, Pecinka writes.
That is why its middle-class voters were surprised when their representatives at the Prague City Hall behaved like Jiri Paroubek in May, Pecinka writes.
Paroubek, then CSSD head, toppled Mirek Topolanek’s (Civic Democrats, ODS) second government halfway through the Czech EU presidency in March 2009. A majority of people then dismissed Paroubek’s step which firmed the then weak ODS, Pecinka writes.
TOP 09 took a similarly suicidal step at the Prague City Hall last week when it toppled the “Prague government” headed by the popular mayor Bohuslav Svoboda (ODS), Pecinka writes.
He says it showed later that TOP 09 did not have any preliminary agreement on support with any opposition party. It counted with that people from around “Godfather” Tomas Hrdlicka whom it criticised before the 2010 elections would supply votes to it.
The USTR and Prague City Hall cases prove that TOP 09′s policy remains based on the old Christian Democrat (KDU-CSL) policy “you give me a post and I’ll give you another one in exchange,” Pecinka writes.
Many TOP 09 members, including first deputy chairman and Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek are former KDU-CSL members.
Pecinka writes that the shining phenomeon Schwarzenberg could arise in the presidential election thanks to two things.
The town liberal-minded voters were against a return of CSSD old-timers around Zeman and their months-long search for a representative brought them to the personality of Schwarzenberg, Pecinka writes.
The politically half-dead man became a saint in confrontation with Zeman.
Another cause of the appearance of the glaring comet was the excellent marketing that contributed to the division of the Czech world into “we” and “they.” However, it seems that the bet on marketing has been rather abused by TOP 09 as well as Schwarzenberg of late, Pecinka writes.
This can be exemplified with the situation around businessman Alexei Torubarov whom Russia wanted back and he was really extradited. This happened after three Czech courts gave their verdicts in early May, Pecinka recalls.
He writes that Schwarzenberg and Kalousek turned his departure from Prague into a gunslinger story that they sold to several papers to prove that they place human rights above deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin who was just receiving Czech PM Petr Necas and a delegation of several dozen businessmen.
Some participants in the Torubarov action, headed by former dissident Herman Chromy, say Schwarzenberg’s ministry fatally failed in the case having sent distorted information on Torubarov’s activity to the courts, Pecinka writes.
When it was necessary to somehow iron out the scrape accompanying Torubarov’s deportation, information about the courageous protest by the Schwarzenberg-Kalousek couple , partially at the airport, appeared, Pecinka writes.
He writes that journalist Jaroslav Plesl described this saying “the Karel-Mirek tandem is the peak of political cynicism. Schwarzenberg is presenting himself as an idiot in order to allow Kalousek to pretend being a hero.”
Czech NGO Queries Russian Businessman’s Extradition
MOSCOW, June 1 (RIA Novosti) – The Czech Helsinki Committee (CHV) has questioned the decision to extradite Russian businessman Alexei Torubarov to Russia because his asylum request was not given proper consideration, the CTK news agency reported on Saturday.
CHV’s Lubica Turzova said Czech Justice Minister Pavel Blazek did not have the right to extradite Torubarov.
Blazek’s spokeswoman Stepanka Cechova previously said the minister had allowed the extradition to go head after it had been approved by the Supreme Court.
Torubarov was accused in Russia of committing gross fraud and blackmailing a secret service officer. He claims he himself was blackmailed by the Russian secret service, police and organized crime groups, CTK reported.
He applied for asylum in the Czech Republic, but was taken into custody under an international arrest warrant.
However, when Torubarov was to leave for Russia on May 2, the Czech finance, foreign, transport and interior ministers attempted to stop the extradition, the agency said.
“A justice minister must not allow the extradition of a person whose asylum proceedings are underway,” the CHV said in a press release, adding that Blazek’s explanation that he had acted on the basis of a court ruling amounted to passing the buck.
A minister can ban extradition even if courts allow it, the CHV said.