Transborder repression | Eurozine

Index on Censorship focuses on the increasing ability of autocratic regimes to target dissidents and silence critical voices abroad, using networks of agents and modern technologies to bypass security measures and strike with impunity across porous borders. 

The frightening number of poisonings, attacks and assassinations of public figures critical of autocratic regimes over the last two decades shows that it is often not enough for dissidents simply to leave their country in order to escape persecution.

In a triple feature entitled ‘Living in Russia’s shadow’, three leading Russian journalists share their experiences of a life in exile that requires constant vigilance. They reveal the extensive precautions they must now take to protect themselves from potential attacks by Kremlin agents – from ensuring personal items never leave their sides to avoiding large gatherings and public appearances.

‘When many of us left Russia, it seemed like we were safe. The sense of alarm diminished a bit – but it turned out to be in vain’, writes Echo of Moscow radio host Irina Babloyan, who suffers recurring symptoms and allergic reactions since what she suspects was an attempt to poison her in Georgia in 2022.

The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov outlines the raft of bureaucratic actions the Kremlin is taking in order to silence exiled Russian journalists and writers, from the confiscation of property and the refusal to issue new passports to initiating legal action against their publishers for alleged libel.

Kirill Martynov, editor-in-chief of the independent liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, faces the prospect of being prosecuted in absentia thanks to his designation in Russia as a ‘foreign agent’. Far more than just a stigmatic label, being a ‘foreign agent’ means being effectively excluded from the public sphere and blocked from all work with Russia, even from abroad.

‘I believe these transboundary repressions against emigrants are primarily needed to intimidate Russians who remain in the country. If people see that there is an alternative to dictatorship and war, Vladimir Putin’s regime will face a severe crisis’, writes Martynov.

No safe haven

Elsewhere, a report by Kaya Genç entitled ‘Welcome to the dictators’ playground’ explores Turkey’s growing reputation as ‘a hub of transnational repression’. Once seen as a refuge for people taking shelter from authoritarian regimes around the world, including members of China’s Uyghur community and dissidents from Iran and Russia, the country has become increasingly dangerous for political exiles, as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018 showed.

‘According to a 2023 report from Safeguard Defenders, more than one-third of Uyghurs interviewed in Turkey said they had been harassed by Chinese police or state agents while in the country’, writes Genç.

Iranian spies and agents are also able to operate in Turkey with impunity, as various kidnapping attempts and operations in the last five years have shown. There is evidence that the Turkish state is actively colluding with Iranian intelligence services in order to rid itself of people whose liberal stance and social activism are unwelcome. 

Russian dissidents in Turkey are now finding that they are no longer being issued residency permits and that their visas are not being renewed. According to cultural anthropologist Eva Rapoport, who has been assisting those arriving in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ‘Turkish authorities stopped issuing residency permits. People began getting rejections. Nobody knew what was happening. By spring, lots of people who were going to stay left.’

Technology for tyranny

Particularly since the Kashoggi murder, ‘authoritarian states are acting with newfound confidence abroad’, writes political scientist Alexander Dukalskis. A key feature of this trend is the role of globalization and the use of newer technologies such as messaging apps in facilitating and organizing such operations, as well as the harassment of political exiles. ‘Ultimately, while the underlying logistics of information manipulation and sending threatening communications to dissidents abroad are not new, technology makes it cheaper, easier and almost instantaneous.’

Elsewhere in the issue, Daisy Ruddock reports on how social media has provided authoritarian regimes with a new means of directly threatening critics, while spyware can be used to obtain sensitive personal data such as bank details and personal contacts. ‘It is no longer enough to put physical distance between person and state when the long arm of the state can slide into your DMs’, she writes.

Review by Alastair Gill

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