Ukraine’s calls for international solidarity in fighting aggression of Russian authoritarian regime do not always cover Russian victims of the Kremlin as well. Hromadske tells a story of Russian political activist and his unsuccessful attempts to escape political persecution by asking asylum in neighboring countries.
Vladimir Yegorov stood up to the local authorities. He fought criminality. He exposed corruption in the small Russian town where he lived. For this, he was accused of extremism and his house was almost burnt down.
Finally, Yegorov fled to Ukraine, but was deported. Then, he spent almost a month in Belarus, sleeping in a car. And when he was about to return home, he was detained by the Belarusian security service — still called the KGB — and extradited back to Russia.
Hromadske tells the story of Yegorov’s unsuccessful attempt to escape political persecution in Russia.
Initially, Yegorov asked us not to publish anything about him, fearing publicity. He said he was being hunted by the Russian security service. As it turns out, he was right. Now that Yegorov is in pre-trial detention, it not longer makes sense to hide the story.
In his home town of Toropets, Vladimir Egorov was an electrician. But he also engaged in what he called "civic activism." He raised questions about taxes, wrote queries to government agencies, and served as administrator of the Facebook community “Citizens of the Toropets.” He even headed the local branch of the Russian opposition party "Yabloko."
Photo credit: Yegorov's facebook profile
"Vladimir didn’t just write anti-Putin posts on the Internet. He conducted his own investigations: for example, he posted information on medicine or the illegal smuggling of sand," says Artyom Vazhenkov, an acquaintance of Yegorov and the coordinator of the opposition “Open Russia” movement in the city of Tver.
Yegorov’s internet activity did not go unnoticed. At the end of October 2016, the authorities opened a criminal case against Yegorov on charges of extremism.
What was this act of extremism? Yegorov published an image depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter book series, Yegorov’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, says.
But as Yegorov himself put it, the true motivation for the charge was his strident criticism of the Russian president: “I published a post when Dmitry Medvedev advised teachers to find second job. I wrote that Medvedev had nothing to do with it. Everyone is blaming the prime minister, when, in fact, the president is managing everything. Of course, I used rather harsh expressions.”
On June 12, Vladimir Yegorov decided to flee Russia. Nearly two weeks later, on June 25, someone came to his house at night, broke a window, and threw a canister of gasoline inside, hoping to start a fire.
“I don’t think that this was done by the authorities,” Vazhenkov explains. “Vladimir stepped on the toes of the local bandits, who are closely connected to the officials.”
In Toropets, Yegorov left behind a wife and two children, ages five and twelve years old.
Yegorov went to Ukraine, where he attempted to get refugee status. He drove up to the "Three Sisters," a monument at the junction of the borders between Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, in his car and left it on the territory of Belarus.
He told the Ukrainian border guards he wanted to receive political asylum. Employees of the Ukrainian Security Service took him to the migration service in the nearest big city, Chernihiv, where he filed the paperwork to obtain refugee status.
"The State Migration Service said that the procedure will last six months. My case was handled by a woman named Tatiana. [She] showed me folders with different cases — who was denied, and who wasn’t. It seemed that everything was going to be fine," Yegorov wrote to Hromadske.
In Chernihiv, he got a job and rented an apartment. However, soon something strange happened: people who claimed to be officers of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) came and took him out of the country.
"They silently picked me up from work, brought me home to gather my things, and took me to the border. At first, I thought was going to end up in prison," Yegorov says.
He was deported and banned from entering Ukraine for three years. At the same time, they put no stamps in his passport. "We spared you," the border guards said.
Yegorov was travelling on Russian internal passport which would become invalid if marked in any way, so the border service had no right to write anything in it.
After leaving Ukraine, Yegorov began to publish "Notes from the neutral strip" on Facebook. He wrote about living in his car under the "Three Sisters" monument, and asked people to bring him warm things and transfer money to his family. He was trying to hide his real place of residence. As it turned out later, Yegorov was actually in Belarus.
"I went to Gomel and lived there for a while. Then I went to Minsk, to try and cross the border with Lithuania. But they took me off the train, because I didn’t have a foreign passport," Yegorov told Hromadske.
As he was running out of money, Yegorov saw little reason to hide any longer. He wanted to return to his homeland, but he was sure imprisonment awaited him at home.
At that time, Hromadske received a response from the Security Service of Ukraine about Yegorov’s deportation. The SBU claimed that it investigated him at the request of the Migration Service, but had nothing to do with the deportation. Yegorov was not forbidden to enter Ukraine, the SBU said.
Hromadske received the same concurrent response from the main Security Service office in the Chernihiv region.
After receiving this information, Yegorov felt a bit more encouraged. He was waiting for help from human rights activists, and his thoughts of returning to Russia disappeared. However, he did not agree to do an interview, fearing that excessive publicity could be harmful.
On Friday, July 28, Hromadske received a message: "Hi. I was told that I am wanted by Interpol. Can’t go anywhere from Belarus now, maybe they will find me here soon. I think we can chat on Skype if you do not mind. Last interview.”
However, it was not possible to organize the interview. Yegorov never came back online.
On Monday, July 30, Belarusian human rights activists from the Human Constanta, an organization that helps refugees, reached out to Hromadske. They also could not contact Yegorov, but found his car.
"We were going to see him yesterday, but he did not respond to our messages and calls. We found his car,” said Yana Goncharova, a representative of the organization. “We called the hostel, and were told that the KGB came and took him yesterday evening. He was either followed, or someone just complained.”
Human Constanta discovered that Yegorov was arrested by the Belarusian authorities on charges of petty hooliganism. Goncharova told Hromadske that human rights defenders had spent the whole day at the court, where the case was being heard, but failed to get into the meeting.
"The trial was held on Monday, without the participation of Yegorov. For half the day, no one could say when the session would,” she said. “They held it after the end of the official working day, so of course no one got in. We barely managed to find out that they sentenced him to two days of arrest, and were supposedly going to let him go because he spent two days there on the weekend. We called all the courthouses where he could have been, but nobody told us anything. "
Vladimir Egorov was eventually found in a temporary detention cell in Toropets, after an investigator from Russia’s Federal Security Service informed Yegorov’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, of his whereabouts.
Yegorov is expected to stand trial for extremism soon. If convicted, he will face a real prison term.
Why Was Yegorov Deported From Ukraine?
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) claims to have no involvement in Yegorov’s ejection from Ukraine. Hromadske sent a formal request for information to the State Migration Service of Ukraine. The Migration Service declined to comment, describing the case as confidential. It would not even confirm whether Yegorov had appealed to the state agency.
The border service also declined to provide any information.
"We cannot provide information on the movement of third parties," agency spokesman Oleh Slobodyan said. "Therefore, writing a request in useless. We will still not be able to answer it in a meaningful way."
According to human rights activist Maxim Butkevich, coordinator of the project "Without Borders," the Ukrainian authorities did not have a legitimate reason to abort the procedure for granting Yegorov refugee status.
"This cannot be done even if a criminal proceeding is opened,” he says. “Even if the applicant receives a rejection, there are always five business days to appeal the decision, during which time he can not be deported."
This is a major violation of international norms, Butkevich adds.
"If the SBU did not ban Vladimir Yegorov from entering the country, and there was no corresponding court decision, then only the border guard service could do this,” he says. “We need to figure out, who made such a decision. After all, this should lead to criminal charges."