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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foreigners Wonder Who Will Be Next

Some Westerners living in Russia are feeling nervous. With the Peace Corps made redundant, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe squeezed out of Chechnya and a respected U.S. labor activist deported with no explanation -- all in the space of a few weeks -- other foreigners are wondering who could be next.

The latest diplomatic hassles for foreigners from the nonprofit sector, experts say, reflect the steadily growing influence of the intelligence agencies under President Vladimir Putin and a realignment of their priorities with those of the state writ large.

So far, the restrictive measures have been aimed at non-Russians believed to be nosing around in sensitive areas or somehow doing damage to the country's prestige. They don't pose a threat to foreigners across the board. But that could change if the Kremlin loses hold of the long leash now restraining the special services.

"It's quite a troubling sign," Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said Friday.

The enhanced clout of the intelligence agencies "is like a gas that expands, filling up all the available space," Petrov said. Rather than resulting from some recent event, the current tightening of the screws reflects traditional chekist thinking: "no information, no problems."

Under former President Boris Yeltsin, "they felt this was impossible, unacceptable. ... Now they believe they have carte blanche inside the country to do whatever is convenient for them," Petrov said.

A senior foreign diplomat who has been involved with Russia and the Soviet Union for nearly 20 years agreed.

"It's an old battle being fought on a new battlefield," he said.

The intelligence services have gotten a boost from the West's new tolerance for their methods since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the diplomat said, and from the weakness of other institutions -- an anemic nongovernmental sector, an unfair and overburdened court system and a passive diplomatic corps.

Despite the latest problems for Western nonprofit groups and an explicit effort by Moscow to tighten up its migration policy, there is no sign of an all-out attack on foreigners.

"If a person doesn't stick his nose in anything, if he doesn't make contact with people and organizations that pose an inconvenience to the government, if he doesn't pass on some kind of unofficial information, then he can go ahead and work and feel completely safe," Petrov said.

"The current authorities see what they can do and what they can't," Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said in a telephone interview. "Foreign policy is no longer based on emotion, as it was for much of the '90s, but on cool common sense and pragmatism."

Under Putin, the country will not espouse politically suicidal policies -- like unconditional support for pariahs such as Saddam Hussein -- and it will be willing to compromise on issues crucial to its national interests, such as Kaliningrad, when it sees its options are limited.

But Moscow also wants to show that it is on equal footing with its Western partners, Makarkin said. And it will happily get rid of eyesores that suggest the contrary -- such as the Peace Corps, which is meant to help developing nations, or the special status of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, which was revoked last October -- if it can do so without jeopardizing its overall well-being.

In general, experts agreed that the business community would not feel a crunch anytime soon.

"Some business people have complained generally that bureaucrats are becoming more arrogant, more confident, but nothing more sinister than that," Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank, said Friday.

However, those who have been affected are anxious, and understandably so.

Irene Stevenson, the AFL-CIO's pointwoman in Russia, was turned away at Sheremetyevo Airport last month upon her return from a brief trip abroad.

The Moscow-based organization headed by Stevenson, who has lived and worked in the country for nearly 15 years, recently helped provide legal aid for an air traffic controllers' strike that managed to snag up the work of regional airports and force a sizable wage increase.

"I'm hoping it's something not politically directed against me or my organization, but just a misunderstanding," Stevenson said by telephone from Paris last week.

Others are less optimistic.

"Foreigners are under attack -- from Catholic priests to Peace Corps volunteers," a Western diplomatic source said in a recent interview.

One thing that makes these incidents seem ominous is the heavy-handed, undiplomatic way Russia handles them.

When imposing restrictions, the government either fails to offset them with constructive counterproposals or presents such compromises much later, after the damage to relations has already been done.

Federal agencies often do a poor job coordinating and give contradictory explanations for their actions -- or no explanation at all.

Stevenson is still in the dark about the cause of her deportation on Dec. 30.

When Moscow refused to extend the visas of 30 Peace Corps volunteers last summer, it also gave no official reason.

"It was very frustrating," Alex Wendel, who worked as a teacher in Sakhalin and was among the volunteers denied re-entry, said in a telephone interview from his native Kansas City, Missouri.

"I think the unfortunate decision was made by bureaucrats and administrators in Moscow who probably do not know what Peace Corps activities are," Wendel, 27, said.

Months later, only after Moscow announced it would accept no more volunteers at all, the Foreign Ministry explained that the country had outgrown the need for such aid.

But Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev offered a different take. Patrushev told reporters in December that the volunteers had worn out their welcome because they were too inquisitive, collecting socioeconomic and political information in the regions. He alleged that one of the volunteers had a CIA background and was hunting for information about the Russian military industry.

"The special services of all countries harbor an internal dislike for information-gathering by outsiders. There's no surprise there," Makarkin said.

The latest wave of visa denials for foreigners working in sensitive areas, such as environmental protection or Chechnya, is not the first one since Putin -- himself a former KGB agent -- rose to power.

The trend was apparent as early as Putin's first year in the Kremlin, when a number of foreigners working in nongovernmental organizations were barred from entering Russia. These included well-known Czech journalist Petra Prochazkova, who set up two orphanages in Grozny, Greenpeace activist Tobias Munchmeyer, a German national, and Briton Chris Hunter, who organized schooling and psychological counseling for Chechen refugee children.

The government's implied reason for the visa denials at the time was that the foreigners were seen as a security threat.

Petrov and Makarkin agreed that the squeeze on foreigners has met with apathy from a Russian public less concerned with civil liberties than with making ends meet.

"At most, some 10 percent of the population is even remotely interested in these issues," Makarkin said.

For now, he added, the authorities seem to be keeping the anti-outsider zeal of the intelligence agencies within some logical bounds.

"What's dangerous is the prospect of a chain reaction going out of control: Today they kick out one group, tomorrow another and so on," Makarkin said. "That would be most regrettable."

Staff Writer Oksana Yablokova contributed to this report.