Georgia. an Expatriate Couple Committed to the Protection of Russian Political Dissidents

1 year ago 50

Egor Kuroptev and Anastasia Burakova are a discreet couple in the Georgian capital, where they met in the spring of 2021 and married the following year. Both play an essential role in the reception and protection of Russian political exiles in Transcaucasia, through the work of the NGOs they direct. This commitment is made indispensable today by the influx of Russian citizens following the invasion of February 24 and, more recently, by the announcement of a partial mobilization of the population.

Fifteenth floor of a building in the Vaké district, on the heights of Tbilisi. Egor is leaning on the balcony, as if he were watching the city. Anastasia begins to speak: “My grandmother was born in Ukraine. Due to the decollectivization measures, she was deported to Siberia. That’s where I was born and where I spent the first twenty years of my life.” At the age of 20, Anastasia went to St. Petersburg to study law. After graduating, she decided to use her skills to serve civil society. She worked as a human rights lawyer for pro-democracy organization Open Russia. At the same time, she took part in the creation of United Democrats, a group supporting opposition candidates at local elections. However, this project was banned in 2020 by the Russian authorities. Moreover, the following year, as a wave of repression hit most of the civil society, Open Russia was declared an “undesirable organization”. Anastasia painfully recalls her last months in Russia: “My closest colleague, Andrey Pivovarov, was arrested in may 2021. He has just been sentenced to four years in prison. After his arrest, we continued our work for another two months. Under pressure of the intelligence service, I then decided to emigrate to Ukraine, and stayed in Kyiv until the war started.”

The NGO Kovcheg (The Ark) supports Russian political refugees in legal, psychological, or more practical issues such as housing. In its early days, the organization consisted simply of a Telegram bot and two apartments to house refugees, in Istanbul and Yerevan. Little by little, however, Kovcheg strengthened its network, recruiting many volunteers and diversifying its assistance offer. The organization also developed a page centralizing Russian democratic initiatives, in order to facilitate the involvement of expatriates.

“On March 10th, the day I announced on Telegram that we would provide assistance to expatriates opposed to the war, we received more than 5,000 requests in one day. Today, more than 70,000 people follow our news feed.”

The nature of Kovcheg’s support depends on the location and the profile of the applicants. For example, in Georgia, Kovcheg does not offer accommodation but only online consultations, as the dissident community is firmly established there. On the other hand, while Armenia and Turkey host many Russian political refugees, those individuals are in a more precarious situation that requires the provision of material aid on the spot. Moreover, while legislative consultations are open to all, limited housing spaces require Kovcheg’s team to conduct extensive research on the identity of the potential recipient. Despite these practical limitations, Kovcheg remains a fundamentally open network, based on mutual help between the exiles themselves. As Anastasia explains: “We focus our help on people who have taken a stand against the war, which does not mean that we only support members of political opposition organizations. Many people are pressured by the authorities after signing an anti-war petition, posting on Facebook, sending money to a humanitarian organization… These people have never participated in any organization. They don’t know where to find support, contacts… We also help individuals in this situation.”

“For the past 19 years, I have done nothing but oppose the regime.”

Egor is imposing with his athletic build and slow diction, meticulously choosing his words and the topics he agrees to discuss. The position he holds today, as coordinator and public figure of the opposition, carries heavy responsibilities. Since the age of 17, he has been involved in various media and opposition organizations. His career began in the management of the news radio Echo of Moscow and in 2007 he initiated his own media start-up project for the TV channel VKT AKADO. From 2012, having in the meantime directed several media programs, he collaborated in Georgia with Russian opposition leader Ksenia Sobchak on a political talk show. Originally, this project was to be carried by a Russian media group. However, increasing pressure from the authorities, making Egor’s work in Russia more and more difficult, pushed him to look for opportunities outside of the country: “No, I wasn’t arrested. But they called everyone, forbidding to collaborate with us and to broadcast our projects. It became impossible to do anything from Russia.” From this movement on, his activity was fully relocated in Georgia, where he decided to settle. He defends the country’s European integration and strives to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda in the region, notably through the television program “Border Zone” which he initiated.

From 2019, the creation by the NGO Free Russia Foundation of an office in Transcausia whose management is entrusted to Egor Kuroptev, marks a decisive step in his commitment against the regime. In his own words: “Free Russia Foundation is the leading organization providing assistance to Russian political exiles and opposing the regime’s malign influence in Transcaucasia and around Russia.” This organization was founded in 2014 in Washington by a group of Russian expatriates, shortly after the invasion of Crimea. The idea was to offer democracy advocates an accurate analysis of the situation in Russia while establishing a support network for Ukraine.

The office in Transcaucasia turned out to be more and more essential, as the countries in this region, providing a relatively safe haven for political exiles, were set to receive an increasing number of expatriates. In coordination with local authorities, Free Russia is working to preserve this fragile peace and to consolidate the local dissident community. While Kovcheg provides legal and psychological support to political refugees, Free Russia focuses more on security issues, supporting democratic initiatives against the influence of the Kremlin and offering geopolitical expertise to various actors. “We monitor everything in the region, as far as the Russian and Belarusian exile communities are concerned. When it is possible, we try to prevent rather than to cure.”

The Kremlin’s threat ignores borders. According to Egor, FSB agents are deployed throughout the region, collecting information and spreading the regime’s propaganda. If this analysis undoubtedly applies to Armenia , Russia’s strategic partner in the region (both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization created in 2002), it is also valid to some extent in Georgia. Egor mentions the story of young Vsevolod Osipov, a member of the Libertarian Party who was forced by Russian intelligence services to collect information on the expatriate community in Georgia, before being found out and deciding to cut all ties with the Russian authorities. He also mentions the deleterious influence of the extremist nationalist Vladislav Poznyakov who, in collaboration with the FSB, would have organized a campaign of hatred aimed at stirring up tensions between Russians and Georgians. “Their strategy is always the same: create chaos. And it works.”

Egor Kuroptev thus appears as a mediating figure between the different actors at play. His geopolitical expertise and the network he has built up in the region make him the ideal leader to manage the current situation. After spending ten years in the country, regularly participating in humanitarian missions in the occupied zones, he shares the suffering of the victims of the Kremlin: “I understand the resentment of the Ukrainian and Georgian people, because our state is a terrorist state governed by criminals who should be tried and imprisoned. This regime is a total failure, ruining the future of the Russian people and the rest of the world’s perception of this community. Everyone is led to believe that Russians are killers.”

Anastasia insists on the shame of Russian citizens concerning the exactions of their government: “Of course, everyone feels ashamed and responsible for this war. We belong to the aggressor country. Our group organizes many online meetings on this subject in collaboration with psychologists. Everyone is trying to do something in response to this feeling of shame. I myself always wonder if I did enough when I was still in Russia, wether I could have done more against the regime.”

“Do something” against the shame. Against the system that causes it. What Kovcheg and Free Russia have in common is the desire to keep up the fight, to allow expatriates to continue resisting from abroad. “We want to create a community that maintains links with Russia and continues to fight against the regime and its propaganda. But the people we help must first organize their daily lives and reach a stable psychological state. Only then can they seek new forms of commitment. It is a long and complex process,” explains Anastasia.

For several weeks, a banner hung on a balcony in the capital: “Putin kills people in Ukraine while Russians eat khachapuri in Georgia.”. Faced with this kind of criticism, Egor insists on the difference between “tourists” and dissidents: “I share the anger of the Georgian population who sees thousands of Russians coming here to drink wine and enjoy the sea while Russia is occupying Georgia and attacking Ukraine right now. It’s just crazy. But there is also a strong community of Russian citizens here who are working twenty-two hours a day against the regime, taking part in this war between the civilized world and Putin’s regime. As for going back to fight inside Russia, it may be a reasonable choice for some people, but we work with journalists, political activists, people who cannot do anything in Russia because their safety is immediately compromised. These activists are much more useful if they leave, if they receive assistance from another country and find a place to keep up the fight. We know that this fight is our responsibility. We don’t want to escape our responsibility. But we are of no use if we are arrested or killed. From abroad, we can appeal to society, to our friends, to our fellow citizens. We can try to explain what is happening in the country and oppose the propaganda narratives. We can help European communities to understand Russia. We can help make sanctions effective. So we can do a lot in the end, and we are doing it. Today there are several thousand politically committed people who need to be assisted, because without them nothing can change. And one day they will form a new free Russia.”

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