Putin’s government forces opponents into exile, in greatest political flight in Russia’s post-Soviet history, experts say

MOSCOW — Evoking the dark age of Soviet repression, Russian politicians and journalists are being forced into exile in ever-increasing numbers. The steady stream of politically motivated emigration that accompanied President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade rule has turned into a torrent this year. Opposition figures, their advisers, human rights activists and even independent journalists are increasingly faced with a grim choice: escape or face prison.

Context:With three months of legislative elections, Putin increases repression and reduces the scope for action of his opponents

One of the main allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny left Russia this month, state media said, putting her on a list of dozens of dissidents and journalists who are likely to have departed this year. Together, experts say, it is the biggest wave of political emigration in Russia’s post-Soviet history.

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This year’s forced departures are reminiscent of a tactic perfected by the KGB during the last decades of the Soviet Union, when secret police told some dissidents they could go west or east — into exile or a prison camp in Siberia . Now, in the same way, the Kremlin seems to bet that forcing high-level critics to leave the country is less of a headache than arresting them, and that Russians abroad are easy to paint as traitors in collusion with the West. .

— Their strategy is: first, put pressure on them [a sair do país] said Dmitri Gudkov, a popular Moscow opposition politician who fled in June. “And if you can’t pressure them, throw them in prison.

On Aug. 7, Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s most prominent ally who had remained in Russia, flew to Turkey, reported pro-Kremlin television channels. The escape came after a court sentenced Sobol to a year and a half of movement restrictions, including a ban on leaving the Moscow region. But authorities granted her a few weeks of freedom before the sentence went into effect — a clear sign that she had one last chance to escape.

“It is better, of course, to participate in Russian politics from within Russia,” Sobol said in a recent interview. ‘But for now, the stakes are too great.

On Monday, Russian news agencies reported that Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, had also left the country.

This year’s flurry of matches — triggered by the crackdown on dissent following Navalny’s return to Russia in January — includes more than a dozen national and regional figures from the Navalny movement, considered extremist by the Kremlin; other opposition activists across the country; and journalists whose media have been banned or labeled as “foreign agents”.

Two media and a legal rights group in Russia, backed by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovski — who spent 10 years in prison after coming into conflict with Putin and now lives in London — closed this month after organizations linked to the they were declared “undesirable”.

Andrei Pivovarov, former leader of the Open Russia movement founded by Khodorkovski, was arrested after boarding a flight to Warsaw in May — a sign that not all dissidents are being allowed to flee.

“I believed it was imperative to continue working openly and in public until the last moment, as long as that possibility existed,” said Khodorkovski, who now ponders: “The risks of this kind of work have become too great.

As opposition leaders leave the country, the pro-Kremlin media reports their departures with contempt. A comment posted on the Telegram, for example, said that Sobol’s departure showed that “Navalnyists can only be associated with cowardly rats.”

Opposition members associated with Navalny are trying to maintain their influence through corruption investigations and live YouTube broadcasts and campaigning for a coordinated protest vote in Russia’s parliamentary elections in September. But they don’t highlight the fact that they are abroad.

Ivan Zhdanov, executive director of Navalny’s team, left Russia in January, helping to coordinate the protests that followed Navalny’s return and arrest from abroad. He decided not to return after Russian authorities accused him of recruiting minors to protest. In a telephone interview from a location in Europe that he declined to reveal, he argued that the battleground of Russian politics had virtually moved into the digital sphere.

“What matters is what we are doing, not whether a particular official or a certain number of officials has crossed the border into the Russian Federation,” Zhdanov said.

But officials fail to recognize the importance of the Internet, said Gudkov, who served in parliament from 2011 to 2016.

“Our generals in the security agencies prepare for the last war,” he said from his current refuge in Bulgaria. “Now, if you leave, you’ll be heard the same, if not better.

Some critics of Putin would disagree.

Yulia Galyamina, who helped lead a campaign against a referendum last year that allowed Putin to govern until 2036, said she refused to accept the suggestion to leave the country while under criminal investigation. She received a two-year suspension sentence, preventing her from running for Parliament in September. She is now working with another opposition candidate, but avoiding street protests on the advice of her lawyer.

“I’m sorry, but how will things change here if everyone leaves? – she said. “When everything starts to fall apart, the power will fall into the hands of those around you.”