‘They make it clear that you have to disappear’ The Russian authorities are cracking down on foreign citizens for taking part in protests — even if the demonstrations have nothing to do with Russia
The Russian authorities have been forcing foreign nationals who participated in recent protests to leave the country, revoking their residency permits or even refusing to issue these documents in the first place. Meduza spoke to four such people, two of whom protested in support of imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny and two of whom took part in demonstrations in support of the Belarusian opposition movement. Here are their stories.
‘That did away with any hope I was holding on to’
On January 23, Denis Adonyev, a Kyrgyzstani citizen, was detained at an unauthorized rally in support of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny on Moscow’s Pushkin Square. He’s now set to be banned from entering Russia for the next 40 years.
The 32-year-old has lived in Moscow for about 10 years. He and his wife, a Russian citizen, share both a child and a business (registered under her name), where they sell and repair cars.
The January 23rd rally was Denis Adonyev’s first time being detained. He says he arrived at Pushkin Square about an hour before the protest, “behaved peacefully, didn’t shout any slogans, but by two o’clock I was sitting in a police vehicle with other detainees.” The police took him to the Izmailovo district police department, where they fined him 20,000 rubles (about $270) under Article 20.2 of Russia’s Administrative Code.
In mid-February, Adonyev received a call from the Interior Ministry’s migration department for the Izmailovo district, where he was subsequently issued two documents. One stated that he was banned from entering Russia until February 15, 2061 (citing the law “On the procedure for exiting and entering the Russian Federation”), while the other stated that the Moscow Interior Ministry was revoking his residence permit (citing Paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the law “On the legal status of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation”).
Neither of the documents indicate a date by which Adonyev is required to leave Russia. “It says, ‘In view of the above information, you must leave Russia by,’ and then a dash. ‘If you fail to leave the Russian Federation by the specified date, you will be subject to,’ and then a dash,” he said.
Adonyev went to his local police department to find out when he was required to leave, but nobody could give him a clear answer: “The deputy head of the Interior Ministry in Izmailovo pointed out that my case isn’t unique — according to him, someone else was banned from entering for 99 years, so supposedly I should feel lucky.”
The decision to revoke Adonyev’s residence permit was made by the Interior Ministry’s migration department in the Izmailovo district, despite the fact that Adonyev’s registered address is in a different part of the city. This is likely because he was taken to the Izmailovo police department after being detained for protesting on January 23.
“The deputy chief at the Izmailovo district migration department said to me, ‘You understand as well as I do that interfering in a country’s constitutional order is tantamount to terrorism.’ I laughed and said, ‘It’s not like I blew anything up,’ to which he answered, ‘That’s why they’re deporting you instead of sending you to jail’,” Adonyev recalled.
The Izmailovo district migration department didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
According to Adonyev, when asked whether it would be possible for the ban on his entry into Russia to be lifted, the deputy police chief said, “‘You’re a grown man — you understand perfectly that this is all political.’ Well, a huge thanks to him, because that did away with any hope I was holding on to. Until that point, I had the impression that I might be able to find a way to stay here. But when an Interior Ministry head tells you something like that, everything becomes clear,” Adonyev said.
The document indicating the basis for his deportation wasn’t issued to Adonyev personally. “I want to know whether this decision came from the FSB or the Interior Ministry. I made an official request to the Interior Ministry, and they’re supposed to respond within 30 days,” he said. Adonyev’s wife, child, and, parents all live in Moscow; he understands that he’ll likely have to leave Russia by the end of 2021, but he plans to appeal the decision in all of the local courts, and then contact the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Illarion Vasilyev, a lawyer from the human rights organization Memorial, who also works with the non-profit group Civic Assistance, has been advising Denis Adonyev. And he’s not optimistic about his client’s prospects. “On the national level, I think we’ll lose in every court. Usually, courts refuse, citing a country’s right to limit its intake of foreigners. Additionally, if the decision is based on conclusions made by the FSB — which are secret — then the courts simply note that they don’t have the right to analyze the findings of national security authorities, essentially refusing to evaluate intelligence reports,” he explained.
Vasilyev admitted that sovereign states have the right to limit foreigners’ migration statuses and movement; however, the decision should be measured, proportionate, and in accordance with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which holds that the state shouldn’t interfere in a person’s personal life, and that it shouldn’t destroy families. Vasilyev also noted that Adonyev’s case has an obvious political motive: his participation in the protest.
Mark Chebotar, a 22-year-old Moldovan citizen, told a similar story to Civil Assistance’s hotline. He’s lived in the town of Gelendzhik (Krasnodar krai) for about 10 years, and on January 23, 2021, he participated in a rally outside of the city administration building. It was his first protest.
Chebotar, who brought a poster to the protest, was quickly detained, then charged under the same article used to deport Adonyev, Article 20.2. According to Chebotar, after a court fined him 15,000 rubles (about $200), they brought him back to the police department, where he was forced to stay for two more days. He didn’t reach out to any lawyers, and nobody explained why he’d been detained.
When Chebotar was finally released from the police department, he was subjected to an unofficial interrogation in the migration department, located in the same building. His interrogators shouted at him, asking why he had participated in the protest, where he lived, and who paid him to participate. “As a result of the interrogation, they came up with a fine of 2,000 rubles [about $27] — for living outside the area where I was registered,” he said.
On February 19, Chebotar was summoned to the Gelendzhik migration department, where they issued him a document without any date or reference number. It was a notice from the Interior Ministry stating that he was banned from entering Russia for five years and that his residence permit had been cancelled. The document said he had 15 days to leave Russia — otherwise he would be deported.
Both Chebotar and Adonyev are still trying to get answers from Russia’s migration authorities about how these decisions were made. Chebotar is simultaneously preparing to leave the country by March 6; he’ll be leaving behind his common-law wife, his business, and his two children, who are Russian citizens.
“After all the news, I just felt like I couldn’t not go out there [to the protest]. It was my attempt to support people going through political difficulties. I understood there might be serious consequences, especially since Gelendzhik is a small town where everybody knows everybody. I understood they might deport me. But I also knew I didn’t want to live in fear,” Chebotar told Meduza.
‘Go back to Belarus and have your revolution there’
Protests don’t have to involve Russia explicitly to cause trouble for foreigners. Other noncitizens living in Russia have had their residence permits revoked for expressing support for opposition protesters in Belarus. Belarusian citizen Lana Savanovich, for example, an unofficial coordinator for the Belarusian diaspora in Moscow, left Russia on February 13 after learning that her residence permit had been revoked by the FSB.
Savanovich and her family moved to Moscow a year ago. After the opposition protests in Belarus started in the summer of 2020, she began participating in pickets outside of the Belarusian embassy in Moscow and helping other Belarusians relocate to the city. In September, she decided to apply for residence as a first step toward eventually becoming a Russian citizen. She gathered the necessary documents and reached out to an agent for help.
After an interview with Savanovich was published in Novaya Gazeta, however, she received a call from a Belarusian lawyer she knew who also lives in Moscow. He hinted that he’d heard from law enforcement agents that Savanovich might soon have some problems with the authorities.
Another one of Savanovich’s acquaintances from Belarus, who had spent six years in jail for political reasons, advised her to find a lawyer and get a Polish visa (Belarusians can apply for Polish humanitarian visas through a simplified procedure.)
“I realized anything could happen, but I was sure that because I was in Russia and not in Belarus, there would be some semblance of law and order. I was sure they would notify me somehow if I’d done something shocking from the Russian authorities’ perspective,” said Savanovich. “Especially since I was trying not to give them anything to blame me for. We helped Belarusians who had fled to Russia, but we didn’t send money to the protesters in Belarus, and we didn’t comment on current events in Russia.”
Once it became clear that the Interior Ministry’s response was significantly delayed (the application review period isn’t supposed to exceed three months), Savanovich applied for a Polish visa “just in case.” Finally, on February 4, she was notified that her residence permit was ready. When she arrived at the office to pick it up, a migration services employee told her she had been “denied a residence permit by the FSB.” They took her application and instructed her to wait.
“It was already evening, and there were six people behind the counter at the immigration desk. I was alone in the waiting area. There were about fifteen minutes until closing time. All this was happening after the protests in support of Navalny. It was very distressing,” Savanovich told Meduza.
She texted the agent who’d been helping her prepare her documents; he was a former migration services worker himself. “He explained that the issue had to do with the article about ‘threats to the constitutional order of the Russian Federation,’ and that they were calling me an ‘organizer of protests at the Belarusian Embassy.’ I was still standing there, waiting for an explanation, when the agent suddenly texted me, ‘Leave.” I said I was going to the bathroom, quickened my pace, hopped in a taxi, and left.”
“It’s a very interesting system: you’re not given any documents. They just make it clear that you have to disappear. If you stay, you’d better be prepared for anything,” said Savanovich. On February 13, she flew to Warsaw.
Fifty-year-old Ruslan Khazin, another Belarusian activist, told Meduza a similar story about leaving Russia after being pressured by security officials. Khazin participated in a series of pickets outside the Belarusian Embassy, in addition to recording video messages expressing support for the opposition protesters still in Belarus on behalf of the Belarusian diaspora in St. Petersburg. In November, Khazin and another activist were fined 10,000 rubles (about $135) for hanging a white-red-white flag on St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
Because Belarusian citizens are allowed into Russian without any additional documents, Khazin lived and worked comfortably in St. Petersburg from 2012 to 2020. After extra quarantine measures were instituted, however, he applied for a residence permit in the fall of 2020.
In February 2021, when the three-month deadline for reviewing his application passed with no response, Khazin went to the police department, where he was told that his document still wasn’t ready and that he would need to wait several more weeks. Soon after, his pass to get into the Lakhta Center building, where he worked, stopped working. The guard told him he needed to report to the company’s security service.
According to Khazin, he found two plainclothes officers waiting for him. They showed him their official IDs, then proceeded to interrogate him for two hours. “They asked how we [Belarusian citizens and opposition supporters in St. Petersburg] stayed in contact with each other, who I was in contact with from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters and from the Coordination Council [the unified Belarusian opposition], how I gave commands, and who helped us coordinate the protests.”
Despite Khazin telling them that these were “decentralized, peaceful protests,” the officers made it clear that his work in Russia was over, and that he had two weeks to leave the country. “They said, ‘Pack your things, go back to Belarus, and have your revolution there’,” Khazin said.
His company soon informed him that he wouldn’t be able to continue working there “because of some tough problems with the authorities.” After that, he received two calls from people who identified themselves as police officers and asked him about his preparations to leave. Khazin also claimed to have seen a surveillance team in the courtyard outside his building several days in a row.
“I don’t have any documents, not even a residence permit rejection,” Khazin said. On March 1, he flew to Warsaw. “I don’t have a further plan of action yet — I’m just trying to find housing right now.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale