Lisa Horner recently earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from Reed College. She served this summer as an intern with SRAS, working with translation, writing, and management assignments. She is currently working as an assistant client manager with SRAS partner company Alinga Consulting Group in Moscow. All translation and synopsis has been performed by Ms. Horner.
Asylum Seekers from Russia, 2007/2008
Synopsis and Translation by Lisa Horner
Introduction by Josh Wilson
According to UN statistics, in 2006 Russia took third place among the world's industrialized nations as a source of new seekers of political asylum. In that year, some 15,900 Russians applied for asylum from their country. Only China (18,200) and war-torn Iraq (23,000) saw more of their citizens flee what they claimed was persecution.
Of course, not all cases of asylum seekers
are high-profile or aimed at western emigration. Pictured above is a Chechyn family who has applied for asylum
in Slovakia. The picture is from the UN
Refugee Agency website.
While the report got relatively little press attention inside Russia, it did make the cover of a small Russian magazine called Bolshoi Gorod. BG, as it often calls itself, has a print run of 358,000 and is distributed for free mostly in coffee shops and cafés in the Russian capital. It additionally produces much of its content online at BG.ru and is popular with young intellectuals.
The BG feature led with the UN statistics and then moved to a several-page interview with Boris Kuznetsov, a prominent lawyer who applied for asylum from Russia in 2007, and ended with a cross-section of other political asylum seekers who submitted applications in 2007 or 2008. Interestingly, just a month after the BG story appeared, the UN published updated statistics that showed Russia moving to second place for its category - with 21,800 new applicants for asylum in 2007.
The following SRAS resource, as part of our series on opposition politics in Russia, provides an English synopsis of the interview and direct English translations of the seven small descriptions of asylum seekers. Note that the BG article does not generally mention criticism of some of the asylum seekers that has been offered. Elena Tregubova, for instance, has been accused by some (British and Russian commentators) of seeking asylum mostly as a way of publicizing herself and her two books. Most of the original BG feature (in Russian) can be found online here. Additionally, SRAS has linked the names below to more information online (in English when available).
Lawyer Boris Kuznetsov has been involved in many high-profile court cases in Russia, including representing the families of the 118 soldiers who died when the nuclear submarine "Kursk" sank in 2000.
Criminal charges were brought against him in Russia in July 2007 for "Disclosure of a State Secret." At the time he was the defending Senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan, who was on trial for embezzlement. In the course of this defense, Kuznetsov submitted a Federal Security Service (FSB) document labeled "confidential" to the court. The document showed that FSB officials were illegally wiretapping his client's telephone. Because the document was officially "confidential," officials decided that Kuznetsov's submitting it as evidence was a criminal act. Having recieved his summons, Kuznetsov immediately left the country. On Feb. 5, 2008, he asked the USA for political asylum and received it not long after.
"If I hadn't left, I'd be in jail for certain," Kuznetsov said. "However, they didn't just want me in jail… What they mainly wanted was to make sure I never practiced (law)again."
Kuznetsov believes that, in fact, he's being persecuted for his roles in sensentive legal cases. He names three in particular: his work on a case concerning the assassinated journalist Anna Politkovskaya; his defense of Manana Aslamazyan (Director of the Educated Media Foundation – who was accused of smuggling money into Russia when he did neglected to file a customs declaration when entering Russia with more than $10,000 in cash), and his defense of Vladimir Khutsishvili (accused of killing former Rosbiznesbank director Ivan Kivelidi).
Kuznetsov advises all of his clients to disappear for awhile when prosecutions begin in Russia, particularly if the case involves the FSB. Kuznetsov followed his own advice, even though he feels certain he is not guilty of the crime he is accused of.
"Data cannot be a 'State Secret' if it contains information on civil rights violations or abuse of official power," Kuznetsov said. "That's Article 7 on the law against Disclosing State Secrets."
Kuznetsov plans to stay in America and has little hope of returning to Russia any time soon.
The Zhovkhar Chechen Ensemble
In early August 2007, 18 residents of the Chechen Republic requested political asylum in Finland. They were members of the Zhovkhar Chechen Ensemble, which had formed in Chechnya in 1990. They are well known there and have received several awards. According to their own story, they came to Finland as part of a tour. In Finland, they turned to local police, asserting that "it isn't possible to live like a human in today's Chechnya." At first Chechnya's government gave no comment on the news that these performing artists had decided not to return. However, several days later, Chechnya's Minister of Cultural Affairs, Dikalu Muzakaev, announced that the artists in question were either not, in fact, connected with the Zhovkhar Ensemble, or that they had quit the group at least two weeks before their trip. The Finnish-based organization "Society of Russian-Chechen Friendship" contested the declaration, asserting that all the artists who had arrived on tour were well known members of Zhovkhar. In answer to this, the President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, then gave his own commentary. He asserted that the members of the musical ensemble have "always been paid due honor and their social problems have always been taken care of" in Chechnya. He emphasized that the residents of the Chechen Republic have long had no reason to seek political asylum.
Russian journalist Elena Tregubova asked Great Britain for political asylum April 23, 2007. She worked in Russia as a correspondent on government affairs for the newspapers Russkii Telegraf, Izvestia, and Kommersant. After she published a book called The Kremlin Digger's Tales in February of 2007, there was an explosion by the door of her apartment. The journalist was uninjured. Investigators refused to launch a criminal case, but Tregubova considered the incident an attempt on her life. Afterwards she wrote another book, The Kremlin Digger's Farewell. Both books were later published in Germany as Kremlin Mutants. According to her own words, she feared for her life and called the British government's granting her asylum "very brave."
Russian businessman Vasily Buraga asked Ukraine for political asylum in the beginning of April, 2008. He is head of the factory Uralkhimmash, and is on the board of directors for a group of companies called "Uralinvestenergo," which is worth about two billion USD. According to Russian law enforcement agencies, Buraga and his colleagues have been engaged in moving all assets of the enterprise offshore since 2004. Two years ago, they fled from Russia. An international arrest warrant was issued for Buraga. The Prosecutor General's Office brought charges against him for the embezzlement of more than $100 million. He was arrested in mid-2007 in the Crimea by the local criminal investigation department and a special services operation known as "Golden Eagle." His request for political asylum is still under review.
Yet another businessman who has fallen from grace is Mikhail Gutseriev, the former head of Rosneft. He asked Great Britain for political asylum in October, 2007. In Russia he was accused of tax evasion and illegal business activity. Gutseriev denies these charges. A warrant for his arrest was issued in August 2007. According to unverified information, he spent time in Turkey, Belarus, and Azerbaijan before moving to London. However, as per their policy, the British Embassy in Russia declined to comment on an individual case of political asylum. His case is still under investigation.
Anna Ploskonosova, the fiancée of Yuri Chervochkin, a member of the National Bolshevik Party who was murdered late last year, turned to the Migration Service of Ukraine on March 20, 2008, requesting political asylum. In Russia she participated in various acts of political opposition and, in relation to these, two criminal charges have been brought against her. The first was a charge of violence against an authority figure, and the second was for spray-painting slogans of opposition on a wall. Ploskonosova said it was very likely she would end up in jail, so she left the country. The Ukranian Migration Service has not yet announced a decision on her request for political asylum.
In February of last year, it became well-known in Russia that the Russian journalist Alexandr Kosvintsev had asked for political asylum in Ukraine. According to him, he decided to leave Russia because of persecution by law enforcement agencies. "It's related to my investigative reporting on Aman Tuleev, the governor of Kemerovsky Province." Besides working as a journalist for regional papers in that province, he is head of the local branch of Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front political party. Ukraine understood his situation and granted him political asylum after a year.
In mid-December of last year, Andrei Sidelnikov, leader of the opposition youth organization "Pora," ("It's Time") asked Great Britain for political asylum. He reached British territory by traveling through Ukraine by vehicle after being blocked by border patrol agents from boarding a flight. The border patrol was following instructions from the FSB.
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