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No Shelter Introduction: The harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union

Article by Adam Hug

November 21, 2016

No Shelter Introduction: The harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union

The repressive nature of many governments in the former Soviet Union and how that they repress those who attempt to challenge these systems has been repeatedly and well documented, including through the Foreign Policy Centre’s Exporting Repression series of which this essay collection is part. Intimidation, surveillance, bureaucratic restrictions on activities, arrest and imprisonment on dubious charges, kidnapping, torture and killings are all techniques believed to have been used against those who are seen as a threat to a number of regimes in the region. What is less well understood is that for some people who are able to go into exile, leaving the country is not the end of living in fear that they are being monitored or potentially at risk of harm from representatives of the security services of their home country. Within the former Soviet Union, more often than not, this harassment is being performed with the collusion, or at least the acquiescence, of the government of the host country.


Understanding the problem

The authors in this publication identify the four core groups who are targeted by the security services:

  • Former regime insiders and their family members;
  • Members of opposition political parties and movements;
  • Independent journalists, academics and civil society activists;
  • Banned clerics and alleged religious extremists, including alleged members of proscribed terrorist groups.[1]


As touched upon in the Foreign Policy Centre’s 2014 publication Shelter from the Storm[2], the status of these individuals varies by country and by situation. Many of the people discussed in this publication are those taking advantage of visa-free movement within the Commonwealth of Independent States[3] to remove themselves from immediate pressures in their home state, with Russia the most common initial destination, given its sizable diaspora communities from the rest of the region. For those heading to the West the challenge remains whether or not to formally claim asylum, a move that makes the break with the home nation more permanent and impacts upon their activism, given that across Western Europe opportunities for short-term study and work opportunities, previously an important alternative, are becoming more difficult to access in a tightening immigration environment.


As a number of authors in this collection show, the ways in which the system works to put pressure on exiles, at least within the region, relies on both formal and informal processes. As discussed in Shelter from the Storm, the 1993 ‘Minsk’ Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Matters[4] provides a legal framework to facilitate the return of people to other CIS member states. Shared priorities over combatting both religious extremism and any potential challenges to regime control are embedded in organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)[5]. Both the CSTO and SCO provide opportunities for training and information sharing on a formal basis[6], with the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) playing a role in coordinating counter extremism efforts (as defined by the participating regimes), while the CSTO is playing an active role in dealing with dissent online as discussed below.


However, as Mark Galeotti sets out in his contribution, the shared KGB heritage, the ‘Repressintern’ networks of many of the senior personnel within the national security services, creates informal networks that really help to drive this collaboration, even when they are operating in an extra-legal capacity. As clearly set out in the FPC’s Sharing Worst Practice publication, a common, overly broad set of values and definitions of threats to state (and regime) security further helps to underpin regional security service collaboration.

Russia and Ukraine

The role of Russia in this particular publication is both as a primary actor and an accomplice to the actions of others, but it is this latter role that is the primary focus of this publication. Much has already been written on the extent to which Russia projects its power overseas and indeed the use of the security services in the region is steeped in Cold War imagery. Galeotti sets out the overview of Russia’s security infrastructure in his contribution.


As touched on by a number of authors, the Russian intelligence services have been implicated in a number of suspected assassinations and suspicious deaths overseas. The most famous case perhaps being the assassination in London of former FSB agent turned dissident Alexander Litvinenko, although Arzu Geybulla also notes the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny which is currently under investigation in the UK.


During the Yanukovch era, Russian security services had some cooperation from the domestic security services to put pressure on exiles seeking shelter in Ukraine, a country that served as an emergency escape route for Russians seeking a quick exit. Perhaps the most prominent case was that of Leonid Razvozzhayev, the Left Front political activist, in October 2012. After being implicated in an alleged plot to overthrow Vladimir Putin in a Russian TV documentary, Razvozzhayev fled to Ukraine to seek refuge. He arrived at the Kiev office of the UNHCR requesting to make an application for asylum. After a discussion with UN officials he left his belongings, saying that he would go to the cafeteria. He did not return and was next seen two days later leaving a Moscow court claiming that he had been kidnapped and tortured, a claim he repeated subsequently. With the two nations’ security services currently facing off across the battle-lines of a hybrid war, the relationships are fundamentally different. In fact, the issue of kidnapping has become an issue for both sides along the line of contact (between Ukraine and the separatists) and the Russia-Ukraine border, with competing claims that those captured were taken across the border or that they had moved into hostile territory either accidentally or deliberately.[7] Most of these conflict issues, while a fascinating insight into security service tactics, fall beyond the primary remit of this publication.


It is not only national-level Russian security services that operate abroad. Chechnya has developed a wide range of both official and informal channels to intimidate its nationals and neutralise opposition abroad. That President Kaydyrov’s use of social media is not limited to Instagramming pictures of his missing cat or his children cage fighting,[8] with heavy monitoring of online criticism and the willingness to follow through with violence against his critics, is explained in graphic detail in the contribution by Civil Rights Defenders.


Those seeking sanctuary in Russia are supposed to benefit from the protections of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), where the court has been clear in its resistance to allowing the extradition of persons to the countries of Central Asia where they would be at significant risk of refoulment. In the last year however, the power of the court in Russia has been watered down by the December 2015 law asserting the primacy of the Russian constitution and constitutional court rulings[9]. In practice however, the Russian security services have shown little regard for such principles prior to this change. They have been willing to collude with the Central Asian security services to illegally return people to their country of origin, even when those persons are subject to specific rulings from the ECtHR, such as in the cases of the Uzbek nationals Yusup Kasymahunov who was kidnapped in 2012 and the attempted kidnapping of Murod Yuldashev in 2013.[10]


Central Asia

It is the experience of Central Asian exiles that forms the heart of this publication, experiences less widely explored in the media and wider literature than those of Russia. As shown in this publication, the two greatest offenders are Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, whose security services have shown that they are able to be active not only within disaspora communities within Russia but also further afield, from Turkey to Western Europe.


As both the contributions by Edward Lemon and by John Heathershaw, Rosa Brown and Eve Bishop show, Tajikistan’s security services have become increasingly active in trying to extend repression beyond their borders since they began an increasing crack down and consolidation of regime power at home over recent years. Given Uzbekistan’s track record as perhaps the most repressive regime in the region, it is no surprise that it seeks to extend its reach to critics abroad. Both states utilise the threat, both real and perceived, of radicalisation to target those who become recruited by both radical and more moderate (both secular and Islamic) opposition groups within the diaspora communities, particularly in Russia, and those who had been previously active in such groups whilst in their home states. In the case of Uzbekistan, the threat of recruitment to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is used, a group whose role has become increasingly detached from Uzbek politics since 2001 but still forms part of the alleged basis for cracking down on religious groups. As Lemon points out, the secular opposition Group 24, the recently banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) and Islamic proselytising movement Tablighi Jamoat are most active in Tajik migrant communities, though they are listed alongside ISIS and AL Qaeda as extremist threats to the state of Tajikistan[11], thereby helping to frame pressure on political dissidents within the framework of treaties such as the Shanghai Convention on Combatting Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism[12]. As Tajikistan’s security services become more active and the Russians remain supportive of such actions, those at most risk are looking for alternative places to seek refuge. Poland, one of the easiest EU member states for people to access directly from Russia, has seen a surge in Tajik asylum seekers, rising from almost zero prior to 2014, to 104 asylum seekers that year, to 527 in 2015 and 660 in the first half of 2016 alone[13].


While the focus is on cases relating to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it is also worth noting the way in which Kazakhstan’s security services have operated. The overall number of known incidents against exiles are lower than its two neighbours and for the most part Kazakhstan has attempted to use formal legal channels to exert pressure on exiles who the regime finds troublesome, as Heathershaw et al note, there have been a few severe incidents against high profile opposition figures and former regime officials. Most notably these have included members of the opposition Alga Party, the Respublica opposition newspaper linked to Alga and the associates of controversial banker and opposition leader Muktar Ablyasov, who was convicted of contempt of court in the UK Courts in 2012[14]. INTERPOL Red Notices were issued and extradition proceedings attempted for figures such as Muratbek Ketebayev who was initially detained by Spanish Authorities despite having refugee status from Poland, though the case was ultimately thrown out. Ablyasov’s family were controversially extradited from Italy, before being returned after international outcry[15], whilst Ablyasov himself is fighting attempts at extradition to Russia ordered by the French Government, on the grounds that further extradition to Kazakhstan would be likely to follow, in addition to concerns about receiving a fair trial in Russia[16]. Jos Boonstra, Erica Marat and Vera Axyonova suggest in a 2013 FRIDE paper that the reasoning behind Kazakhstan’s decision to close down its old external security service, the Barlau, and create a new service directly answerable to the President was in order to improve its performance in tracking opponents of the regime overseas[17].


South Caucasus

In their contributions both Arzu Geybulla and Giorgi Gogia discuss the situation of Azerbaijan, currently the state in the South Caucasus with the most hostile human rights environment, the former focusing on the experience in exile, the latter on those left behind. Although there are claims of potential involvement in suspicious deaths, the majority of the complaints raised by activists surround basic surveillance, harassment and pressure on relatives, the latter being detailed in Gogia’s contribution. Activists have spoken of a sense of being followed on the streets of Berlin and other major Western cities, having their email and social media accounts periodically hacked and described how their families in Azerbaijan have faced enormous pressures, from losing jobs to being jailed.


Georgia, as the least restrictive country in the Caucasus and Central Asia with reasonably straightforward transport links to Azerbaijan and Armenia, has often been the first port of call for Azerbaijanis wishing to remove themselves from government pressure. However, increasingly its government has become under pressure from Azerbaijan not to play host to Azeri dissidents and opposition figures. While the Georgian authorities are seen as being unlikely to collude in attempts to render activists back to Azerbaijan illegally, the authorities have let it be known that they cannot give guarantees to be able to ensure their safety. Furthermore, the Government of Georgia will potentially respond to Red Notices and other formal extradition requests for suspects, though these will be subject to significantly freer legal hearings than would be possible back home, as Geybulla explains in the case of Azerbaijani activist Dashgin Alagarli.


Surveillance and Western issues

The dissident experience, whether within their home country or in exile, inculcates a sense of extreme caution, verging on paranoia, about the extent to which their activities are under surveillance. The threat though is very real, whether it is through security services physically keeping tabs on their movements or monitoring emails, phone calls and social media. As authors have made clear in this collection, this monitoring takes place not only on public sites such as Youtube and semi-private social media such as Facebook, through which dissidents share information, but also through private, nominally secure communications systems such as Skype, an example being the cases of Uzbek nationals Kudrat Rasulov and Fazliddin Zayniddinov whose Skype conversation transcripts were produced in court as evidence against them[18]. Furthermore, the Kazakhstani security services are believed to have used professionally produced spyware to target opposition figures based in the West, such as the publishers of the Respublica newspaper[19].


The use of Russian-style System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) systems for monitoring internet and telecommunications installed directly into telecommunication companies’ networks[20] appear to be being augmented in a number of countries by Western technology to access online systems based outside the region. According to Privacy International, a number of Western and Israeli companies are providing the technology that underpins these monitoring operations with Trovicor Intelligence Solutions from Germany (and formerly Siemens) believed to be potentially providing services to Tajikistan and both the Israeli-based NICE systems and the Israel branch of US firm Verint International are known to provide monitoring services to both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan[21].


The behaviour of the West more broadly in terms of internet surveillance, such as the US PRISM system uncovered by Edward Snowden that requires internet companies to provide access to user data[22], undermines the ability to challenge regimes in the region about the use of mass surveillance to put pressure on dissidents. However, this is not the only area where Western practice has perhaps undermined its ability to push for reform. The Bush administrations’ extraordinary rendition programme in the mid-2000s can be seen as providing a permission framework for kidnapping and other forms of illegal rendition that take place within the region. There is some evidence that the US transferred dozens of prisoners to Uzbekistan in the 2000s, for detention and interrogation, despite the widespread use of torture[23]. What is also clearly the case is that, prior to the 2005 Andijan massacre, and to a lesser extent afterwards, the US and its allies cooperated with the security services and military of Uzbekistan, in support of activities around Afghanistan, and helped support Tashkent’s internal narratives around the threat posed by the IMU and other terrorist groups that have been used as a pretext for far wider crackdowns against opposition and religious voices[24]. Cooperation has included the transfer of military vehicles following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with equipment and training for customs and border officials[25]. The EU as well has invested significant resources into funding and training the sections of Central Asian security services involved in border management and counter-narcotics through the Border Management in Central Asia (BOMCA) programme, while the OSCE has been involved in attempts at police reform in Tajikistan[26]. The omens from the impending arrival of President Trump are not promising in terms of exerting a positive influence in such matters, with claimed plans to reintroduce extra-legal measures including torture in the fight against terrorism and a further deprioritising of human rights in US foreign policy. This is to be set alongside an increasingly inward-focused EU and a UK absorbed by the post-Brexit trade and political environment.


As discussed in this essay collection and previous FPC publications[27], the INTERPOL Red Notice system is used as a method to make life difficult to exiles by restricting travel to third countries and putting them at potential risk of extradition proceedings, particularly if they do not have refugee status. While recent work by Fair Trials International[28] suggests that under new leadership INTERPOL is looking to reduce the number of politically motivated Red Notices[29] that are being issued, there is still more work to do. For example, as John Heathershaw et al explain, the August 2016 case of Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri[30] shows there are still serious cases where authoritarian regimes are able to use the INTERPOL system to harass their opponents abroad, even when the chances of extradition from Western countries remains limited to non-existent. It is of further concern that the reforming efforts of Secretary General Jürgen Stock may now be undermined by the appointment of former Chinese Vice-Minister for Public Security Meng Hongwei as the organisation’s President[31].


What our authors say


Dr Mark Galeotti argues that as Vladimir Putin seeks to assert Moscow’s hegemonic authority over post-Soviet Eurasia, one instrument at his disposal has been to offer repressive regimes the opportunity to target dissidents in Russia and also the assistance of his formidable intelligence agencies abroad, building on historic Soviet era links. Thus, Moscow has helped not only monitor and harass opposition activists in Europe in particular, it also appears to have assisted in at least some assassinations. However, this kind of collaborative repression appears to win lasting support only from the most toxic of regimes, and thus the long term value of what he dubs the ‘RepressIntern’ appears limited.


Civil Rights Defenders write that Chechens who run afoul of the Russian republic’s autocratic leader Ramzan Kadyrov find there are few places where his security forces cannot reach them. Kadyrov uses both traditional strong-arm tactics and electronic surveillance to keep tabs on Chechen refugees, economic migrants, journalists, and political exiles from the Middle East to Vienna and Strasbourg. Those accused of committing real or imagined crimes against the state – as well as their friends and families – find that international borders are not significant impediments to Kadyrov’s ability to terrorise, torture and murder Chechens with seeming impunity. The author of this piece is a Chechen human rights activist living abroad. They are writing anonymously, with support from Civil Rights Defenders for their and their family’s safety.


Dr John Heathershaw, Rosa Brown and Eve Bishop introduce the University of Exeter’s Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) database project, which details 125 cases of extra-territorial security measures being used against political exiles from the five Central Asian republics. Their data demonstrates that the concentration of cases come from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (95 of the 125 in total). They draw attention to how informal measures, such as intimidation, take place alongside formal measures of charges, notices, arrests and renditions across three distinct ‘stages’ of extra-territorial security. The data show an increasing number of these cases, driven partly by Tajikistan’s extensive campaign against its secular and religious opposition. While many cases take place within the post-Soviet space, a significant minority occur in EU states, including cases of attempted assassination and suspicious death. Certain patterns are discernible for exiles as they move along the three stages of extra-territorial security pressure from being put on notice/surveilled (stage one), to arrests or other forms of detention (stage two) to ultimately attempted rendition or physical attack (stage 3). For example, a repeated practice in Russia from stage 2 to stage 3 is to detain and release a Central Asian exile who then disappears for some time before lawyers and relatives finally discover that the exile is in custody in his/her home country. This pattern suggests a high degree of coordination between Central Asian and Russian security services which collaborate in illegal security measures.


Dr Edward Lemon examines the ways in which the security services of Tajikistan have operated beyond state borders, primarily in Russia and Turkey, attacking, intimidating, monitoring, kidnapping and assassinating opposition members in exile. Such incidences have increased dramatically in recent years as the government has outlawed opposition movements, most notably Group 24 and the Islamic Renaissance Party, forcing members to leave the country. This opposition in exile poses a limited threat to the regime of Emomali Rahmon. But returning activists to face trial in Tajikistan has become a priority for the government. Lemon profiles those who have been targeted, looks at the tactics adopted by the authoritarian Tajik regime and examines the ways those targeted have been able to use the legal system to resist being forcibly returned.


Nadejda Atayeva’s  analysis illustrates how the government of an oppressive country, in this case Uzbekistan, uses an ever more aggressive variety of methods to muzzle civil society activists abroad and how it abuses the Western open sources, social media, and INTERPOL mechanism to track down activists, migrant workers, and other groups of citizens who have spent over three months abroad. Based on these observations, she insists that there is an urgent need to carry out reforms in the systems of the UNHCR and the INTERPOL to tackle their misuse as well as ensuring greater protection of personal data of activists abroad.


Arzu Geybulla argues that if threats, intimidation and persecution of political activists and journalists at home were not already enough, these men and women often continue to face threats even after leaving their home countries. In most of these cases leaving persecution behind by fleeing the home country becomes a relative concept, as the secret service apparatus, in most if not all of the former Soviet Union states, continues to use measures and methods to keep dissidents on high alert and in fear of imminent danger to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are just a few of the countries whose political émigrés continue to face persecution and even murder when abroad.


Giorgi Gogia writes that Azerbaijan wages a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices by arresting and prosecuting human rights defenders, youth activists, critical journalists and opposition political activists, as well as by adopting laws and regulations restricting the work of independent groups and their ability to secure funding. The Azerbaijani authorities have also arrested, prosecuted, and harassed activists’ family members with the apparent aim of compelling the activists to stop their work. The authorities have often targeted the relatives of outspoken journalists and activists who have fled abroad out of fear of persecution and continued their vocal activism in exile. In some cases, relatives in Azerbaijan have publicly disowned or renounced their relationships with their close relatives abroad, possibly as a means to avoid retaliation by the authorities for their relatives’ vocal criticism.


[1] Some of whom may indeed be seeking to violently replace their home government. Terrorism poses a real threat to Central Asian states but it is one that is exaggerated for regime purposes.

[2] Adam Hug (e.d.) Shelter from the Storm, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014, The asylum, refuge and extradition situation facing activists from the former Soviet Union in the CIS and Europe,

[3] Along with bilateral agreements between members on work permits

[4] CIS, Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Matters, 1993,

[5] Adam Hug (e.d.) Sharing Worst Practice: How countries and institutions in the former Soviet Union help create legal tools of repression, May 2016,

[6], Agreement on CSTO member states’ special services training enters into force, December 2009,

[7] See for example and

[8] Kadyrov currently has over 2 million followers on Instagram

[9] BBC News, Russia passes law to overrule European human rights court, December 2015,

[10] Fergana News, Uzbek citizen Yusup Kasymahunov kidnapped in Russia, December 2012, v. Russia, Application no. 1248/09, Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights,8 July 2010,,50ffbce40,50ffbce45a,4c3716732,0,ECHR,,.html ; Elena Ryabinina, Refugees in Russia: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?, March 2013,

[11] Edward Lemon, The long arm of the despot, February 2016, The IRPT are a gradualist group that does not officially support the overthrow of the regime, although Group 24 do.

[12] Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism, June 2001, via the Council on Foreign Relations,

[13] Yan Matusevich, The Quiet Tajik Refugee Crisis, The Diplomat, August 2016,

[14] For reasons of transparency it should be noted that in 2010 the FPC hosted a public seminar with Ablyasov, whilst members of the Respublica newspaper including Muratbek Ketebayev supported the Kazakhstan at a Crossroads project that ran from 2009-2011.

[15] BBC News, Kazakh dissident Ablyazov’s family allowed back in Italy, December 2013,

[16] Jim Armitage, Mukhtar Ablyazov: Kazakh billionaire to be extradited to Russia from France, The Independent, October 2015,

[17] Jos Boonstra, Erica Marat and Vera Axyonova, Security Sector Reform in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: What Role for Europe?, May 2013,

[18] Edin Omanovic and Mari Bastashevski, Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, Privacy International, November 2014,

[19] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan Said To Be Hacking, Spying On Dissidents, August 2016,

[20] Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan show that Ukraine under Yanukovych had access to a SORM system in their book The Red Web, 2015 Public Affairs Books. Privacy International show that Uzbekistan also operates a SORM system, The Right to Privacy in Uzbekistan, July 2015,

[21] Edin Omanovic and Mari Bastashevski, Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, Privacy International, November 2014,

[22] Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others, June 2013, The UK’s GCHQ is also believed to have undertaken similar work.

[23] Don Van Natta Jr, U.S. Recruits a Rough Ally to Be a Jailer?, New York Times, May 2005, See also the Open Society Justice Initiative, Globalising Torture, February 2013,

[24] Reid Standish, Where the War on Terror Lives Forever,

[25] AsiaBizNews, Uzbekistan Gets Equipment for Customs Police Training,

[26] Jos Boonstra, Erica Marat and Vera Axyonova, Security Sector Reform in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: What Role for Europe?, May 2013,

[27] Adam Hug (e.d.) Shelter from the Storm, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014, The asylum, refuge and extradition situation facing activists from the former Soviet Union in the CIS and Europe,

[28] See Institutionally blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, Foreign Policy Centre,  February 2016,

[29] Red Notices act to seek the location and arrest of a person wanted by a judicial jurisdiction or an international tribunal with a view to his/her extradition.

[30] Asia Plus, Tajikistan conducts negotiations with Interpol member nations over extradition of IRPT leader, July 2016,

[31] Benjamin Hass, New Interpol head is Chinese former deputy head of paramilitary police force, The Guardian, November 2016,

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