The international press threw up a hue and cry on January 14 after it emerged a US journalist David Satter had been barred from re-entering Russia.
Superficially, it appears the Kremlin has banned a western journalist because he was critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime. But there are some glaring inconsistencies in the logic of that explanation and big questions stand out that none of the reporting bothers to address. Moreover, later the same day an alternative possible explanation emerged that has largely been ignored in the subsequent reporting: the Russian foreign minister later said Satter, a former Financial Times and Wall Street Journal correspondent, had overstayed his visa and he was more likely a victim of Red Tape Russia.
The story was a gift for the Russia-bashers. Within hours of the news, The Guardian ran with a story headlined "Russia expels US journalist David Satter without explanation: Moscow authorities ban writer from the country in first expulsion of US journalist since the cold war".
However, in its haste to put the boot in, author Luke Harding, who himself was expelled from Russia in February 2011 under similar confused circumstances, forgot to check his facts. Satter is the second, if not the third, US journalist to be expelled from Russia. In 2005 the journalists working for US broadcaster ABC were barred from working in Russia after the channel broadcast an interview with Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev. Under Russian law it is illegal to broadcast interviews with terrorists. US journalist Steve Levine also had his Russian visa pulled in 1994.
Next, the Russian foreign ministry did issue an explanation a few hours later, saying that Satter was barred from entering Russia as he had overstayed his visa by five days, something Satter later admitted on his webpage , and even paid the fine due for people who overstay their visas. RAPSI legal news agency cited a Moscow district court, which ruled on November 29 - ie. well before Satter was refused a new visa - that Satter had violated the visa regulations and was fined RUB5,000 ($180).
Finally, most media organisations ran with the headline that Satter had been expelled or even deported. Actually, he is currently in Kyiv and was not expelled, but denied a new visa after the old one expired. It may seem like nit picking, but there is a difference between "expelled" and "refused a visa" and journalists are required to be accurate in their reporting, especially in a case as emotive as this one.
But the larger issue in this story is the subtext implied by all the reporting: the Kremlin has decided to throw Satter out for his critical reporting and is against the freedom of the press. Satter did write a book in which he accused the Kremlin and/or Russia's security forces for organising the apartment bombings in 1999 which killed hundreds in their sleep and was instrumental in getting Putin elected in 2000. But then every journalist covering Russia in 1999 wrote exactly the same story including this correspondent making pretty much the same claim.
The problems with this spin are twofold. Firstly, Satter had only arrived in Russia in September to work as a consultant for Radio Free Liberty. If the Kremlin objected to his book so strongly why did it issue him a visa only five months ago? Secondly, Satter was working as a consultant, not as a writer. He was doing some reporting and commentary (despite the fact he was on a business visa, which is technically illegal under Russian rules), but he was not in the frontline. Indeed, his name will be new to most Russia watchers and he certainly hasn't written anything particularly critical or embarrassing about the Kremlin recently that would cause the Kremlin to put the kybosh on him now.
If the Kremlin is going to start throwing people out of the country for the content of their reporting, there are many more eligible journalists to attack (most of whom have conveniently being going to Kyiv a lot recently so easy to exclude from Russia), such as any one from the Washington Post or indeed The Guardian. Why pick on a former FT correspondent who was here in the 1990s and is not really a player in the debate on Russia now?
A better explanation is that Satter is a victim of "Red Tape Russia", plus the interference of someone at the FSB intelligence service who has decided to make trouble for him.
As Satter explains on his website, his business visa was issued on September 7, 2013, which gives him the right to be in Russia 90 days, and expired on January 14. He travelled to Ukraine to renew his Russian visa on Christmas Day.
"On November 18, 2013, the visa bureau in Prague which services the Russian Embassy [in Kyiv] refused to accept the letter of invitation from the Russian Foreign Ministry on the grounds that it was improperly prepared. On November 19, the Russian Consulate in Prague accepted the letter but a day was lost reducing my ability to complete business in Prague. The period of the invitation ended on November 21, 2013. The Russian Foreign Ministry advised me that if I arrived in Russia on November 21, the last day of the invitation, which provided the basis for a one time entry visa, a new invitation would be given to me on November 22 which could on that day be presented to the Russian Immigration Service that would in turn issue the needed journalist?s visa," Satter wrote on his website.
In other words, he entered Russia with only one day left on his permitted time in Russia on the assumption that the Russia bureaucracy would issue a new invitation the next day. And of course it didn't. It actually did issue a new invitation letter on November 26, but dated November 22, which at a pinch should be acceptable. However, technically Satter was in Russia for five days without a visa or other documents.
Anyone who has spent any time in Russia will tell you that relying on Russian bureaucracy to be efficient is a foolhardy thing to do. The head of Bloomberg in Moscow, an American, who is married to a Russian and living here for more than a decade, once visited me in Berlin to renew her visa and got stuck for two weeks due to a document snafu. I personally once stood outside the Russian embassy in Tashkent for three days before they would even let me into the building to submit my Russian visa application. Giving yourself 24 hours in Russia to get a letter from the machine, which leaves you visa-less if it fails to show, is not a clever thing to do.
Satter has subsequently been banned from entering Russia for five years. However, this is standard practice: if a Russian were to overstay their UK or US visa and gets caught doing it, then good luck to them when they try to apply for a new one.
However, the FSB does seem to be involved in this story although no one says so explicitly. Alexy Gruby, a diplomat at the Russian embassy in Kyiv, read Satter a prepared statement that said: "The competent organs have decided that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is not desirable. You are banned from entering Russia," reports The Guardian's Luke Harding, who it seems has hammed up the quote for effect. Satter reports the statement says, "Your application for entry into Russia is denied". Not, "You are banned from entering Russia."
Both Harding and Satter accuse the FSB of being behind the decision, and the security services in Russia, as in any country, do have a say in who gets visas, but there is no concrete evidence of the FSB's involvement. Just as likely is that there is some apparatchik sitting at a desk at the Interior Ministry, who was asked what to do about a US citizen who had overstayed his visa by five days and was asking for a new one. The rules are clear: deny the application and ban him from applying again for a bit.
Whatever the truth, the whole Satter affair is another PR disaster for the Kremlin. Putin just went to great lengths to stagemanage the dramatic release of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, presumably to get rid of some of Russia's blotches ahead of the Sochi Olympics that start in a few weeks.
A better reading of this whole saga is not of an evil dictatorial regime lashing out at a vocal critic, but of bureaucratic snafus, incompetence and the lack of control by the centre over its various tentacles. This is almost as bad, if not worse: it is a lot easier to replace a dictator than it is to reform a broken administration.
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