Op-edIt's dangerous to object to the Ukraine war even from abroad

Russia is intimidating its expat celebrities in an attempt to silence them

Alt-rock band Bi-2, which has Israeli-Russian members, was nearly deported from Thailand. After a week in detention, Israel’s Foreign Ministry succeeds in flying group to Tel Aviv

Ksenia Svetlova

Executive Director ROPES (Regional Organization For Peace, Economics & Security); Senior non-resident fellow Atlantic Council; former member of Knesset (Hatnua)

Aleksandr 'Shura' Uman, left, and Egor Bortnik perform during the Bi-2 rock band concert in Moscow, Russia, December 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
Aleksandr 'Shura' Uman, left, and Egor Bortnik perform during the Bi-2 rock band concert in Moscow, Russia, December 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

After a harrowing week in Thai custody, Russian alternative rock group Bi-2 is headed to Israel, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

The move comes after an unprecedented effort by the Israeli diplomats, who intervened to prevent the self-exiled band that has several dual Israeli-Russian members from being sent back to Russia in what amounted to an extradition attempt by the Russian government — though the artists had committed no crime.

The incident seems to show that the Kremlin, tired of emigration and wary of criticism from the Russian diaspora, is now willing to exercise pressure against dissidents not just at home, but abroad, as well.

“The situation and the noise around it suggest that outside pressure played a significant role in our detention. We know that the reasons for this pressure are our creativity, our views, our position,” the band said in a recent Telegram post.

The arrests were made just after the seven-member band finished another successful concert on the Thai island of Phuket, where thousands of Russian citizens who left the country following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now reside. It was not the band’s first time on the island, and its members had little reason to suspect that they would soon be behind bars.

While two members of the band have only Russian citizenship, others are dual Russian-Israeli citizens, one holds dual Russian and Australian citizenship, and Egor Bortnik, known by the stage name LevaB2, is an Israeli citizen exclusively.

Bi-2, which came together in the former Soviet Union, became a Russian cultural phenomenon in the late 1990s and still enjoys popular support among Russian speakers today, 30 years later.

A firefighter carries a man from a damaged residential building after a Russian missile strike, in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)

But in 2022, the band publicly opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and refused to sing at venues bearing banners that hailed the “military operation,” as it is commonly called in Russia.

The group paid a heavy price for its political stand: its domestic concerts were soon canceled and one of its members was designated a foreign agent after writing a protest song.

Soon, they decided to leave Russia. A few days ago, they learned that Russia is coming for them.

Arrested development

On January 25, mainstream and opposition Russian media outlets revealed that seven members of Bi-2 had been detained after the Phuket concert due to issues with their visas. A post in the Bi-2 Telegram channel said the artists were detained due to “incorrectly executed documents by the organizers,” while the group emphasized that they hold all concerts “in accordance with local laws and practices.”

VPI, the event company that organized the Bi-2 performance in Thailand, admitted that it incorrectly issued visas for the musicians, but it seems that Thai authorities had already made up their minds and kept the members of Bi-2 in detention. The musicians were first placed in the custody of immigration officials on the island of Phuket, then, after being forced to pay a fine, were moved to a detention center for migrants in Bangkok and held in a common cell with dozens of other detainees.

Exterior of the immigration detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, January 30, 2024, where members of Bi-2, a visiting dissident rock band that has been critical of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, were held. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The Israeli consul in Bangkok intervened on behalf of the Israeli citizens and said that they would be deported to Israel. An agreement was reached, but the next day the detainees were visited by Russian diplomats who announced that the deal was off and that the Russian government insisted the band members were only to be deported to Russia — and sent there by a direct flight.

On January 30, Bortnik, who does not have a Russian passport, was the only band member who flew back to Tel Aviv. He later published an Israeli flag on his Instagram stories. The rest of the group’s fate was decided on January 31 and they were put on a flight to Israel.

Russian pressure is growing

Exiled Russian politician and human rights activist Dmitri Gudkov, who is a friend of the band, told The Times of Israel that the incident in Phuket is part of an organized campaign by the Kremlin set into motion just in time for Russian presidential elections.

“Russian authorities plan to arrange a show trial to intimidate anti-war musicians and other representatives of creative professions who previously emigrated against the backdrop of the war and are now performing around the world, to demonstrate that they can get anyone abroad,” said Gudkov.

Gudkov hailed the work of the Israeli Foreign Ministry — and specifically that of Israeli diplomats in Thailand.

“I cannot praise enough the Israeli diplomats, and especially the Israeli consul in Bangkok and the representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The level of support and the cooperation — it’s incredible, especially in comparison to our own Russian diplomats,” he said.

Ukrainian tank crews are seen near their tank on the road in Donetsk region, on January 27, 2024, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP)

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently indicated that Russian opposition artists become “toxic” abroad. “Foreign states do not need problems that may arise with people who sponsor and support terrorism of the Kyiv regime,” Zakharova told the Russian Izvestia newspaper on January 27.

In a series of successive incidents, other Russian opposition artists have encountered problems during their performances abroad or in the countries they moved to after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Last week, the Russian rapper Morgenshtern, who was blacklisted after denouncing Russia’s war on Ukraine in 2022, was denied entry to Dubai, where he has lived for the last few years. His Dubai concerts were canceled even earlier, following his designation as a “foreign agent” by Russian authorities.

And Maxim Galkin, one of Russia’s most popular comedians, was denied entry into Bali, where he was scheduled to perform on January 27.

“The reason was given almost immediately and repeated several times by various border service officials: a letter from the Russian government requesting that I not be let into Bali. They showed me the letter but, of course, politely refused me a copy. This is not the position of the Indonesian government — they just fulfilled a request by Russia,” wrote Galkin on Instagram.

In 2022, Galkin, who is Jewish on his mother’s side, and his spouse Alla Pugacheva, one of Russia’s most popular singers, moved to Israel after Galkin publicly denounced the war in Ukraine. Galkin soon continued his performances in Australia, but there is no doubt that pressure is mounting on Russian celebrities who left the country due to their anti-war positions — even as they reside abroad.

“Every Russian citizen who lives abroad should be worried,” Paris-based lawyer Yulia Koroleva told The Times of Israel. “This is a very dangerous precedent.”

The writer, a former member of Knesset, is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and executive director of ROPES.

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