Babchenko case sparks fears among anti-Kremlin emigres in Ukraine

Kiev (AFP) –


Fears for his personal safety drove Evgeniy Lesnoi, who previously presented TV shows in Russia, to move to Ukraine after he publicly criticised the Kremlin.

"One of the reasons I left was the fear that someone could bash my head in with an iron bar," the former presenter on Russia's pro-Kremlin NTV television told AFP on Thursday.

He is one of many opposition-minded Russians -- journalists, politicians and filmmakers -- to have fled to Ukraine after being vilified for his views.

Among them is journalist and outspoken Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko, whose killing was staged by the Ukrainian security service in a case this week that shocked the world.

Ukraine's claims that Babchenko had been shot dead and then later that it had foiled a plot by Russian security services who had hired a contract killer, sent a shiver through emigre circles.

When Lesnoi heard Ukrainian police announce Babchenko's murder on Tuesday, he said he once again sensed "the fear that I felt in Moscow in 2014 and 2015," worrying he could also be targeted.

Now a Ukrainian citizen, Lesnoi, 44, says he moved to Kiev in 2015 for "political reasons".

He had openly criticised the Kremlin stance on Kiev's pro-Western uprising and was detained at an anti-Putin rally.

Until recently he felt he could "breathe freely" in Kiev, working on a national channel.

Lesnoi is not alone. The same frisson of fear was felt by other emigres.

"I was shaking that night," said Ekaterina Makarevich, a journalist who used to work for Russia's Ren-TV channel and also moved to Ukraine for "ideological reasons".

"However you look at it, I'm a Russian emigre and I'm a journalist... Of course the thought did come to mind: 'Who's next? Maybe it's me?'"

Former Russian lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov -- the only one to vote against Moscow's annexation of Crimea -- now lives in Kiev, where the relatively liberal regime of President Petro Poroshenko contrasts with increasingly politically isolated Moscow.

"I'm afraid this isn't the last death," he had warned on Tuesday, ahead of the revelation that Babchenko was actually still alive, saying that "in the last three days I've heard of three contracts put out on Russian opposition figures among emigres."

- Trotsky's ice pick -

A wave of emigration of Russian liberals and opposition figures from 2014 onwards came after the Maidan pro-EU protests in Kiev and then Moscow's annexation of Crimea, as well as the outbreak of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the cost of living is relatively low compared with Russia, and Russian is widely spoken despite not being an official language.

Babchenko left Russia in 2017, living for a time in Prague and Israel before being granted residency in Kiev.

He announced he was leaving Russia on Facebook, saying his family had faced threats.

He triggered furious reactions with an online post saying he felt no sadness after a Russian military plane crashed en route to Syria in December 2016 killing 92 on board including an army choir.

"Here there is no Putin, nor Putin's propaganda, nor Putin's blinded populace," said Matvei Ganapolsky, a Russian journalist who moved to Ukraine in 2015 and has gained Ukrainian citizenship, working at the private Priamy TV channel.

Other Kremlin opponents are longer-term residents, such as former Russian television star Evgeniy Kiselev, who moved to Ukraine a decade ago as Russian channels came under Kremlin control.

Kiselev, 61, admitted that as a political journalist he never feels safe.

"Yes I am afraid. Really afraid for my life," he said, citing the 2015 murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the 2016 car bomb death of journalist Pavel Sheremet and even the faked murder of Arkady Babchenko.

Kiselev went as far as to draw a parallel with the Soviet Union's practice of bumping off its enemies abroad, such as the murder of former revolutionary Leon Trotsky by Soviet police with an ice pick in Mexico City.

"Unfortunately, today as I see it in Russia, the tradition of sending people out with ice picks has been fully restored," he said.