In early February Andrei Yurov, a Moscow Helsinki Group expert and member of Vladimir Putin's Council for Human Rights, was barred from entering Ukraine by the country's border officials. On 25 February, however, after Victor Yanukovych left Kyiv for Russia and Ukraine got its new interim government, the security service withdrew its ban on Yurov’s entry.
But now, after Russia has annexed Crimea and continues to mass troops and military hardware near the Ukrainian border, Ukraine's border and security officials are applying a much wider restrictive policy on Russians entering the country, particularly male Russians of military age (18-55 years) and Russian journalists.
At the end of March Border Service officers at Kyiv’s Borispol airport refused me entry to Ukraine, simply as a Russian of military age. Their formal reason for this was that in the course of a two minute interview with the chief duty officer I couldn’t prove that I was visiting Ukraine on a private visit to friends.
Russian journalist Roman Osharov was made to wait 24 hours in Kyiv’s Borispol airport when attempting to enter Ukraine.
Over the last few weeks Ukraine’s border service has deported, or turned back at the border, hundreds of Russian citizens (one border officer even told me that up to 600 Russians were denied entry on one day). They won’t reveal the exact number, but cite a range of reasons, from the visitor’s having insufficient funds to their carrying metal or rubber sticks, masks or camouflage gear (for fairness’ sake it must be said that the Russians also turn back Ukrainians on various similar pretexts). But in most cases the real reason is simply that that a person is a citizen of Russia, the country that the new Ukrainian government believes has annexed Crimea.
Border Service officers make no distinction between ‘Kremlin propagandists’ and reporters working for independent media.
Russian journalists fall into a separate category of people to be refused entry, and the border guards make no distinction between ‘Kremlin propagandists’ and reporters working for the independent media: almost all Russian journalists are undesirables by definition.
I travelled to Ukraine entirely for private reasons, so during my interview I didn’t produce my press card, though this would have revealed me to be a correspondent for an international broadcaster which could never be described as a tool of the Kremlin.
But even hiding my profession and employer made no difference. Guards marched me and one other undesirable, a Russian who told me he had been living in Ukraine for more than ten years, to Borispol’s transit zone, to await a return journey on the first flight out by the airline that had brought us to Kyiv. Since in my case that meant an overnight wait, I had twenty four hours to languish in the transit zone under the watchful eyes of the guards, who also accompanied me to the toilets and the shop.
An information war?
Since the Russian state media misrepresent what is happening in Ukraine, many Ukrainians support the action of the border officers who have been turning back film crews from all the national Russian TV channels and other media outlets under Kremlin control. For example, on the day I was refused entry they also sent back a reporter from the REN TV channel [one of the largest private federal TV channels in Russia] and two correspondents from the government-owned Russkaya Gazeta newspaper.
The official website of Ukraine’s State Border Service gives its reasons: ‘Some representatives of the Russian media visiting Ukraine behave in a provocative manner and fail to comply with Ukrainian law; their reports give a distorted picture of events.’ An example given is the behaviour of reporters from Russian state-owned NTV, whose 2012 ‘documentary’, 'Anatomy of a Protest' was a hatchet job against opponents of the Kremlin that caused public outrage when it was broadcast. They have more recently produced a similarly derogatory take on recent events in Kyiv entitled ‘The Technology of the Maidan’.
In one incident, according to the Border Service site, NTV journalists working in a border zone ‘stirred up local residents to obstruct our border patrols so that they couldn’t monitor what the film crew was shooting.’ And in another, in the Donetsk region near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, NTV journalists ‘filmed, without permission, a stretch of border and its attendant infrastructure’ and again incited local people to obstruct border patrols.
According to the Border Service, NTV journalists working in a border zone ‘stirred up local residents to obstruct our border patrols’.
‘Basically it’s people from Russia we’re trying to keep out, not journalists as such’, said a rank and file Border Service officer that I managed to talk to at Borispol. ‘Journalists from other countries can come in without any problem.’
Recent developments in Crimea have made it harder for Russian journalists to cross the Ukrainian border.Photo cc: Stefan Richter
But not all Russian journalists work for NTV. One of the last to be refused entry was Andrei Kolesnikov, an experienced Kremlin-watcher with the leading business daily Kommersant, who along with a photo-journalist from the same paper was taken off a train at Kharkiv when trying to enter Ukraine.
On the same day Svetlana Reiter, a well known investigative journalist who recently left online newspaper Lenta.ru with other staff members after its owners sacked the editor in chief, and now works for RBC TV, Russia’s only 24 hour business news channel, also had problems crossing the border. She and photographer Dennis Sinyakov (one of the Arctic Sunrise Greenpeace hostages last autumn) managed however to get across.
I too got lucky: after waiting in the transit zone for ten hours I was allowed into Ukraine. During that time I was helped by Ukrainian civil rights activists at the ‘No Borders’ NGO and Centre for Civil Liberties, which, among other things, coordinates the EuromaidanSOS and CrimeaSOS initiatives that collect and disseminate information about human rights infringements and had read my Facebook post about my little difficulty.
It took the intervention of senior Ukrainian diplomats to get me in.
The absurd part of it all, however, was that it took the intervention of senior Ukrainian diplomats to sort it out. A friend of mine who works as a journalist in New York met Yuri Sergeyev, Ukraine’s UN ambassador, at the UN headquarters – the Security Council was due to meet that day for more discussion of the Ukraine and Crimea situation – and showed him my Facebook post. Sergeyev phoned some Deputy Foreign Minister in Kyiv, who then contacted the Border Service. And suddenly the border was open and my passport was stamped. ‘You were lucky, though’, a Foreign Ministry official (who wished to remain anonymous) told me. ‘The Ministry can’t intervene to influence decisions taken by the Border Service’.
Meanwhile a film crew from the TV programme ‘The Week with Marianna Maksimovskaya’, regarded as the last bastion of sanity on national Russian television, was turned back from Odessa because it had visited occupied Crimea, 200 or so miles to the east along the Black Sea Coast. The Ukrainian government considers entry into Crimea through a Russian controlled border an infringement of Ukrainian law.
The journalists argued that their visit had taken place before Russian annexation, at a time when the crossing was still controlled by the Ukrainian Border Service. This body then looked into the question and concluded that reporter Roman Super hadn’t been refused entry to Ukraine at all - it was he who had refused to enter the country and had flown back to Moscow of his own accord – and that the ban on entry only applied to his cameraman.
Both President Putin and Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky are said to be barred entry to Ukraine. Photo cc: premier.gov.ru
Maksimovskaya says however that several film crews from her show have been refused entry and that she has even written to Ukrainian PM Arseny Yatseniuk about it. Kyiv journalist Pavel Sheremet told me about another incident when a crew from ‘The Week’ had problems on the border, although admittedly it was the reporter who brought it on himself: during his interview with a Border Service officer he joked that his reason for visiting Ukraine was to ‘receive separatist instructions from MP Oleg Tsaryov’ [a Party of Regions candidate in the forthcoming presidential election].
Tightening the rules
Ukraine recently listed 100 high-ranking Russians who voted for troops to be sent into Crimea and are now barred entry to Ukraine. They include Deputy Speaker of the Duma Vladimir Zhirinovsky and presidential aide Sergei Glazyev. President Putin himself was also said to be on the list.
Since 7 April, Russian citizens are allowed to spend only 90 days in Ukraine within 180 days after their first date of entry. The Ukrainian government has introduced this rule in response to a similar restriction imposed on Ukrainians by the Russian government on 1 January 2014.
‘We’ll probably be introducing a visa system’, said my Border Service officer at Borispol airport.
The Ukrainians had already tightened border controls in other ways: for example, foreigners entering the country must bring with them the equivalent of at least £55 per day to cover their expenses, plus enough for an extra five days, as well as a letter of guarantee from their hosts, a formal invitation, a hotel booking and so on. ‘We’ll probably be introducing a visa system’, said my Border Service officer at Borispol.
This is something the Ukrainian government talked about earlier, but the interim government has been in no hurry to implement it. It’s waiting for Russia to make the first move to introduce visas, and will then take reciprocal action.