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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Activists, Reporters Also Called a Threat

Three months after then-President Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin as prime minister, a steady stream of foreigners connected with nongovernmental groups and media organizations began having their Russian visas denied.

Most had been living in Russia for years, and their work had involved Chechnya, the environment, democracy and other issues.

Yeltsin plucked Putin from his post as director of the Federal Security Service in August 1999.

The government's apparent reason for denying most of the visas was that it considered the foreigners' work a state security risk.

At least one of those foreigners, Greenpeace International activist Tobias Münchmeyer, obtained documents indicating that he was considered a security threat.

Münchmeyer, a German national who first came to Russia in 1991 as a graduate student, was denied a visa in December 1999 and sought explanations from the Foreign Ministry and in two Moscow courts: the municipal court where the ministry is located and the city court.

Münchmeyer provided The Moscow Times with copies of two letters from the same Foreign Ministry official explaining his visa denial.

Both letters -- one dated Feb. 8, 2000, and addressed to Greenpeace Russia, and the other dated April 23, 2001, and addressed to human rights watchdog Memorial -- cited Article 27 of the federal immigration law as a reason for Münchmeyer's entry ban. But Point 1 of Article 27, which specifically refers to national security, was not mentioned in the letters.

Münchmeyer, who was among the organizers of an environmental conference in Ukraine in 1995 dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, connects his visa denial with his activities as an environmentalist who opposes nuclear contamination.

In 1999, he took part in publicizing protocols between the government and a Swiss company that indicated Russia's intention to import nuclear waste, which at that time was illegal.

Münchmeyer said he had been allowed to travel to Russia again since the summer of 2004.

"I don't have any written explanation as to why they let me back in," Münchmeyer said by telephone from Berlin.

"I don't know whether it was a political success or just bureaucratic mechanisms."

Foreign journalists also began falling under the category of national security threats.

Around 30 have been denied visas or entry into the country since 2000, said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

All of them were deemed security threats, and "almost all of them covered Chechnya extensively," Panfilov said.

One such journalist is Vibeke Sperling, a veteran Danish reporter for the respected Politiken newspaper who applied for a single-entry visa to attend a European Union conference in St. Petersburg in the fall of 2003.

At the same time, Sperling applied to the Foreign Ministry for accreditation to work as a reporter in Russia.

But when Sperling went to the Russian Embassy in Copenhagen to pick up the visa on Oct. 5, 2003, she was told that the both the visa and the accreditation applications had been turned down. An embassy official indicated that something was wrong with her reporting but did not elaborate, Sperling said by telephone.

Sperling believes she was denied a visa and accreditation because of her critical reporting about Chechnya and other sensitive issues, but said she still had never received an official explanation.

In a March 2004 television interview on the Danish talk-show "Deadline," however, Russia's ambassador to Denmark, Dmitry Ryurikov, suggested Sperling had been denied entry for national security reasons, rather than her Chechnya coverage.

"I do not think that she is denied access to Chechnya because of her journalistic activities," Ryurikov said, according to a transcript of the show provided by "Deadline." "I think that there are security reasons."

Politiken editor Toge Seidenfaden sent a letter dated March 21, 2005, to Ryurikov requesting permanent press accreditation, as well as a multiple-entry visa, for Sperling. Ryurikov answered in an April 4, 2005, letter that Seidenfaden's request "was reported to the competent authorities in Russia and duly considered."

"Following that, I was requested to inform you that the earlier decision regarding the press accreditation of Ms. Vibeke von Sperling was not reconsidered," Ryurikov wrote in his reply, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times.

Panfilov conceded that the only official written explanation he had seen in these cases was a letter from the Federal Migration Service, dated April 12, 2006, to the Russian Union of Journalists stating that British journalist Tom de Waal "is currently barred from entering Russia" because he is a national security threat.

"And that's just because I was the one who invited him," Panfilov said.

De Waal, a former Moscow Times reporter and co-author of a book about the first Chechen war, was planning to come to Russia at the invitation of the Union of Journalists to attend the presentation of a Russian version of his new book on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

He said his visa denial was retaliation for his critical reporting about Chechnya.

"I am curious to know how I can be judged according to a law without any kind of process or information on who made the decision, and on what grounds," De Waal said by e-mail.

"What is the threat they are claiming that I pose, and do I get a right to a hearing to put my case?"