Op-ed: A Cold Shoulder from the West for Russian Opposition

NY Times

By OLEG KASHIN

LAST week, Alexander Dolmatov, an activist in a political party opposed to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin,committed suicide at a detention center in the Netherlands. He had fled Russia last June, hoping to be granted political asylum. When his application was denied, he took his life — the only way to guarantee that he would not be deported home and, most likely, face time in prison.

A Dutch official said “the asylum denial is not the reason for his suicide,” citing a note Mr. Dolmatov, who was 36, left behind. In that note, which Mr. Dolmatov’s mother shared with me, he expressed regret for “having brought shame on everybody.” However, his lawyer has said that Mr. Dolmatov might have written the note under duress. Mr. Dolmatov’s mother has asked the Dutch government for an investigation.

Mr. Dolmatov’s case is only the latest example of the fallout of 2011-12 protests against the Putin regime. It raises questions about concern for human rights in the West, which once sheltered numerous defectors from the Soviet Union but is now less hospitable to dissidents. Instead of Western Europe, America and Israel, today’s dissidents are seeking refuge in former Soviet republics — though their safety is not guaranteed there.

Last year, two opposition activists, Anastasia Rybachenko and Mikhail Maglov, fled Russia. Ms. Rybachenko, who had initially sought asylum in Germany, is now a student in Estonia; Mr. Maglov has applied for asylum in Ukraine.

Another dissident who had fled to Ukraine, Leonid Razvozzhayev, vanished in October after requesting asylum at a United Nations office in Kiev. Days later, he emerged outside a Moscow courthouse, saying he had been kidnapped, repatriated and tortured.

Sergei Kuznetsov, a Russian journalist who has exposed corruption, left in 2011 and moved to Georgia after his attempts to seek refuge in Britain and Israel failed. The European Union has been criticized for dithering on asylum requests from Chechens and other ethnic minorities who have left Russia.

Mr. Dolmatov, Ms. Rybachenko and Mr. Maglov were all casualties of a government crackdown over a series of protests in Bolotnaya Square, which has a long history as a site of repression. Two legendary Cossack leaders were executed there: Stepan Razin in 1671 and Yemelyan Pugachev in 1775.

More recently, the square was the site of the biggest protests in Russia since the Soviet era. In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians gathered there to protest fraud and manipulation in parliamentary elections. Mr. Putin, the president from 2000 to 2008, was prime minister at the time, while his protégé Dmitri A. Medvedev was president. The men announced a series of political reforms and a reshuffling of Mr. Putin’s staff, which gave liberals slight hope.

Mr. Putin, a K.G.B. officer during the Soviet era, has always been nervous about street protests. His regime was terrified by the largely peaceful revolutions that toppled dictators in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, as well as the Arab Spring.

But the Kremlin quickly recovered from its initial fright. Last May, just before Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev switched jobs, thousands of Russians again thronged Bolotnaya Square. Instead of concessions, the government responded with repression. It went after ordinary participants in the protests, including a student, a journalist, even a chemist. Sometimes the authorities would first search the home of a suspect, then detain him a few days later. Because of that delay, several opposition participants managed to avoid detention by fleeing Russia after their homes were searched.

One of them, Mr. Dolmatov, went farther than others in his flight to safety. Unlike other people persecuted in connection with the demonstrations, he had been under surveillance by the F.S.B. (the K.G.B.’s successor) long before the demonstrations started, because he worked for a state-run missile-design company and had a government security clearance. After he fled, during a search of his parents’ home, a government agent told them their son was lucky to have left, or he would have been charged not only with protesting but also spying.

Mr. Dolmatov is returning to Russia — to be buried. His death is a tragedy to those who knew him and also to thousands of anti-Putin protesters who, fearing persecution, have hoped that the West would offer them a haven.

During the cold war, Western public opinion was resolutely on the side of harboring persecuted Soviet dissidents. But as the European Union has drawn closer to Russia economically, interest in Russian human rights has waned, except when developments are so outrageous — like the assassination of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 — that they cannot be ignored. If the West’s doors remain closed, more Russian dissidents will become victims of the state — or die by their own hands.

 

Oleg Kashin is a correspondent and columnist for the magazine Russian Life. This article was translated by Steven Seymour from the Russian.

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