(Paris) The detention in Thailand of members of the Russian-Belarusian rock group Bi-2 illustrates the danger to which voices critical of Putin are exposed, including abroad.
The seven rockers from this famous group in Russia were detained for several days by Thai immigration services before being released this week and leaving for Israel.
They escaped deportation to Russia, where their positions against the war in Ukraine and against Vladimir Putin earned them accusations of “support for terrorism” from Moscow.
The group’s singer, Egor Bortnik, better known by his stage name “Lyova”, accused the Russian president last year on social networks of “destroying” the country.
Bi-2’s arrest took place last week in Phuket (southern Thailand), a popular destination for Russian tourists, where the group was giving a concert. Official reason: a work visa problem. The musicians were transferred to an immigration detention center in Bangkok.
The Russian-speaking group includes seven members, some of whom hold Israeli or Australian nationality in addition to Russian citizenship, according to Human Rights Watch. The NGO denounces Russia’s “transnational repression”, where the rockers, if they had been deported there, would “probably have been persecuted”.
“Very strong pressure”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their country. Among them, leading cultural figures.
“In the eyes of the Russian state, those who left are not only traitors and enemies, but also a risk to Russia’s political stability, a national security problem,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, political scientist and founder of the center of reflection R. Politik.
According to exiled opponent Dmitry Gudkov, active in the release of Bi-2 members, Moscow tried to have them expelled to Russia.
“The pressure (on Bangkok, Editor’s note) was very strong. We are surprised,” Mr. Gudkov said. According to him, Moscow is worried about the popularity of anti-war rock groups in Russia, seen as a threat a few weeks before the presidential election in March, even if Putin’s re-election is little in doubt.
American, German, Israeli and Australian diplomats were involved in the negotiations, he says.
Russian nationalist MP Andrei Lugovoi, prosecuted in Britain for the murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, said on social media that Bi-2 musicians should “prepare” to “tap dance in front of their colleagues prisoners” if they were deported to Russia, where prison awaited them.
The episode is far from isolated. Russian comedian Maxim Galkin shared on Instagram last week that he had been banned from entering Indonesia for a show on the tourist island of Bali. Galkin, husband of Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva, said Indonesian authorities showed him a letter from the Russian government.
Galkin’s shows in Thailand were also canceled in January under pressure from Moscow, he said, denouncing “the maniacal persecution against dissident artists abroad.”
Russian rapper Alisher Morgenshtern, for his part, claimed to have recently been banned from entering the United Arab Emirates, without official reason.
Galkin, Morgenshtern and Bortnik are all listed as “foreign agents” in Russia.
VPI Event, the organizer of Bi-2 concerts in Thailand, denounced a “campaign” against the group in Asia, which started in December “under pressure” from Russian diplomats. The shows of another stand-up comedian, Rouslan Bely, were also canceled, according to VPI Event.
For Russian diplomatic spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the difficulties faced by anti-Kremlin people abroad are normal, because they are “people who support terrorism”.
Moscow’s campaign against its dissidents also includes the inclusion of personalities, such as the renowned writer Boris Akunin, on the list of “terrorists”.
Figures from the Russian cultural scene in exile are regularly targeted by trolls linked to Moscow’s security services.
On Wednesday, Russia’s lower house of parliament approved a law allowing the confiscation of property of anyone found guilty of spreading “false information” about the military.
Russian authorities are testing new “pressure tactics,” according to lawyer Sergei Zhorin, representing the interests of rapper Morgenshtern and other artists.
It is “a diplomacy of fear”, observes political scientist Sergei Medvedev. “Russia seeks to appear as a toxic and omnipresent force that can reach its opponents anywhere in the world.”