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31 May 2018

A journalist is back from the dead but Russian dissidents feel uneasy

Putin’s enemies will remember the Skripal poisoning even if memories of a stunt in Ukraine fade. 

By Jana Bakunina

$30,000 (£22,600): that was the alleged price offered by an intermediary to a contract killer to get rid of Arkady Babchenko, a dissident Russian journalist persecuted for his crusade against Putin and the Kremlin. Babchenko made his name as a war correspondent who had reported from Chechnya and Ukraine. After he had accused the Russian government of being the aggressor in Syria, Babchenko received death threats and fled Russia in February 2017, moving to Czech Republic and then Ukraine. On 29 May 2018, reports said he was shot at home, in the back, and died in an ambulance.

On the afternoon of 30 May, though, Babchenko made a shocking appearance at a press conference in Kiev. Less than 24 hours after his reported death, the journalist explained that a month earlier he had been approached by the Ukrainian security service and told about a plot to assassinate him. Babchenko co-operated with the police to fake his own death and help catch people trying to kill him. As a result, the person acting as a go-between was arrested in Kiev.

Speaking at the press conference, Babchenko said the intermediary possessed his passport photo (contained in his passport and kept by the equivalent of the Home Office in Russia). Therefore, he claimed, the ultimate order to kill him had come from the Kremlin. Earlier, when Babchenko had been reported dead, Russian opposition journalists and campaigners against Vladimir Putin assumed that the Kremlin had been behind the murder. The assassination style – firing three shots in the back – was similar to the killing of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015. Previously, another prominent investigative journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was killed in Kiev in July 2016 by a bomb planted in his car. No one has been arrested for his murder.

While everyone was relieved by the news that Arkady Babchenko was alive, the sense of unease remained. When the (inaccurate) news of his murder broke, Russian Facebook was ablaze with posts suggesting that “Putin was taking down inconvenient people one by one” and “who is next”. Andrei Sidelnikov, a former leader of a small opposition movement in Russia, fled Moscow in December 2007. He received political asylum in Britain and has since founded a NGO Govorite Gromche! (“Speak louder!”), which works to discredit pro-Kremlin propaganda and campaigns against corruption and human rights abuse in Russia. Most recently Sidelnikov wrote a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May calling her to expel more Russian officials working in Britain, including Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, in addition to the 23 diplomats sent back to Russia on 20 March 2018. Sidelnikov has no doubt that Putin was behind the supposed plot to silence Babchenko. “In order to stop Putin from threatening us, we need more stringent sanctions against people connected to his regime and those who abuse the rights and freedom of people living in Russia. Otherwise hundreds of thousands of Russian dissidents living in Britain won’t feel safe.”

Ukrainian theatricals or not, Russian dissidents do have a reason to feel uneasy: the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daugter in Salisbury in early March 2018. I spoke to Russian businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, owner of Hedonism Wines and high end restaurant Hide on Piccadilly. Chichvarkin, who moved to Britain in January 2009, was one of the organisers of the meeting to boycott Russia’s presidential elections on 18 March. I asked him whether he felt afraid. His answer was: “I am only human.”

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Another London-based businessman who had received political asylum in Britain (he asked not to be named) told me that he wasn’t afraid personally since he was no longer involved in politics. “It would be reckless given the brazenness of Putin’s mafia.”

The news of the Babchenko non-murder coincided with the arrest of vocal anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder in Spain. Bill Browder is an American-born investment banker turned activist, whose lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Moscow prison in 2009. Since then Browder has successfully lobbied Western parliaments to pass the Magnitsky Act, a law that allows the freezing of financial assets and banning of visas for Russian and other officials connected to human rights abuse. In turn, the Kremlin issued an international warrant to arrest Browder for alleged tax fraud. Previously, Interpol rejected Russian requests to arrest Browder, who resides in the UK. However, on 30 May Browder was briefly arrested by the Spanish police in Madrid on a Russian Interpol warrant. He was released since.

Browder told me that he had regularly travelled in and out of Britain before and was in Spain several times in recent years. “I was told that the Russians made an urgent request of Interpol last night when they learned I was in the country and that was the basis for my arrest.” It was a complete surprise. He added that “the fact that the Spanish acted on this is highly inappropriate since they had been informed in the past of the political nature of Russia’s requests for my arrest.” Browder believes that Putin’s main goal is to stay in power because if he loses his grip, he will lose access to his money and go to jail. “As Putin’s power becomes more tenuous, he is determined to remove his critics and enemies any way he can.”

The Kremlin has a wide reach. Russian dissidents have good reasons to feel apprehensive. “I thought he’d behave until the World Cup and then everything goes,” said someone to me in jest. I didn’t think it was funny.

Jana Bakunina is the author of Bird’s Milk, a memoir about Russia. Follow her @janabakunina.

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