Kseniya Kirillova reports on how, from prison conditions to repatriating citizens, officials are a major threat to Russians during the COVID-19 crisis.

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In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic the Russian authorities ramped up their rhetoric about the necessity to protect “fellow countrymen” who found themselves abroad in the countries most affected by the virus.  But in practice, it turned out that the Kremlin made things worse for compatriots in most of the affected countries, as well as in their own.

The Battle over Prisons

One of the primary allegations of the Russian government toward Western countries concerned the conditions of prisons holding Russian citizens, with the USA playing the role of primus inter pares.

“We are unconditionally concerned for the state of health of our compatriots in American prisons,” declared the press secretary of President Dmitriy Peskov. The ambassador to the United States, Anatoliy Antonov, sent a letter to the Department of Justice and the Attorney General of the USA, William Barr, in which he suggested looking at the possibility of transferring the Russians to house arrest or deporting them to Russia.

The same agenda was supported by the pro-government news agency Russia Today, which published material on the distressed condition of Russians in foreign prisons. Accompanying this was a curiously specific list of those fellow countrymen for whom the Russian mass media demanded concern. 

Most of them are persons detained for hacker attacks, fraud, attempts to export equipment bypassing sanctions legislation, as well as for the sale of weapons and drugs (including Viktor But and Konstantin Yaroshenko).

Against this background the Russian authorities remained unconcerned about the protection of fellow countrymen in their own country and did nothing to alleviate the prison regime for Russian inmates. As reported by Novaya Gazeta, on the contrary, they tightened the conditions in prisons and pre-trial detention centres, depriving prisoners of visits with both relatives and lawyers. As a result of this policy, there were riots in penal colonies that were brutally crushed by the authorities. Amnesty International’s call to save Russian prisoners also was ignored.

At the beginning of April, the Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia, Tatyana Moskalkova, proposed that inmates convicted of non-violent crimes be pardoned due to the coronavirus pandemic. But these initiatives were not adopted.  Moreover, political prisoners remain behind bars, including Crimean Tatars whom their Ukrainian defenders view as none other than hostages of the Kremlin.

According to the latest reports, several of the Crimeans, including human rights defender and the coordinator of “Crimean Solidarity,” Server Mustafayev, is in a detention facility in Rostov Oblast suffering from a high temperature, weakness, and a dry cough. He has been provided with no medical help.  He also has not been tested for coronavirus.

According to information from rights defenders, similar conditions exist in the penal colonies in the territory of occupied Crimea.  The people there do not have even the most primitive means of defence – there are no masks or disinfectants.  Tests for the new virus are not conducted there. As noted by the Ambassador of the USA to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), James Gilmore, during a meeting of the Permanent Committee of the OSCE, as a result of the repression and intimidation to which Russia resorts against independent voices in occupied Crimea, the true scale of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus on the peninsula is unknown.

The situation is even worse in the so-called “Donetsk Peoples Republic” (DPR) and “Lugansk Peoples Republic” (LPR) where secret prisons and torture cellars still exist. However, according to journalists, the conditions in the regular penal colonies of the Separate areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions differ little from the “dungeons of the MGB” (Ministry of State Security).  Not only is medicine scarce, but they also lack basic ointments, bandages, hygiene products and essentials. In some penal colonies, in principle, there are no doctors, and their functions are performed by a paramedic – one for the whole prison. The Russian authorities exert no effort to influence the separatist governments they control.

In contrast, at the end of March the American authorities began to release thousands of prisoners due to the pandemic, something that cannot be said for Russia.

Helping Russians Abroad

The “protection of compatriots” was declared one of the priorities of Russian foreign policy long before the outbreak. In February, the head of a major Russian think tank, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, proposed amending the Russian Constitution to include the right to protect Russians abroad. In particular, the Foundation wanted to supplement the Constitution, guaranteeing protection and patronage to Russian citizens outside the country, with a right to protection.

“The Russian Federation recognizes its right to use any force to protect the lives and property of its citizens abroad in cases where the host country cannot or does not want to provide them with the protection to which they are entitled.”

Soon enough, the government was faced with the real possibility to display its flaming concern for fellow countrymen in trouble. Late March hundreds of Russians throughout the world were “stranded” abroad because their return trips to Russia were unexpectedly cancelled due to the pandemic. There were similar incidences in the US, Thailand, India, the Malvinas, Israel, Germany and many other countries. Many Russians expecting evacuation had to essentially live at the airport. Many did not have the means to remain in the country, and the visas of many had expired.

In several countries, for example the US, the Russian Embassy provided three days of hotel costs for compatriots, doubling them up in rooms. It was often necessary to extend the rental of rooms, and passengers complained that each time they had to “prolong the stay” at the hotel they “had to fight” for it. “Evacuation” flights were often delayed, and those that took place flew half-full to Russia: according to new rules, only residents of Moscow and Moscow region are allowed to return home.  Another criterion for the “selection” of Russians for evacuation was the date of departure abroad: only those who arrived in another country before January 1, 2020 could fly home.

“Only a few of those who arrived before 1 January have the possibility of remaining here. For example, I was in a program connected with the study of the English language. It lasted 4 months but already had ended. And there are many people in the same situation here,” said one victim of the cancelled flights, Ulyana Ptashkina, who in mid-April still had not been able to return home. In the meantime, Russians remaining abroad created the social network group “Evacuation of Russians,” in which they complain that tickets for the planned “evacuation” flights are being sold at three times the normal price.

Only on April 27 (almost a month after the cancellation of flights), the working group of the Federal Air Transport Agency published a schedule until May 5, announcing flights from Tel Aviv, Rome, Male, Colombo, Bangkok, Phuket, Kamrani and Shanghai. On April 28, flights from Tel Aviv and Prague arrived in Russia. But again, only residents of Moscow and the Moscow Region were able to use this plane. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry is still receiving complaints from citizens who are unable to return home (mainly from New Zealand and Thailand).

These are just a few examples of how the Russian authorities in comparison with other countries do not fulfill even a fraction of their obligations to their citizens.  It seems that the main threat to “fellow countrymen abroad” comes from their own Russian officials.


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