Yelena Tregubova: Free at last from President Putin's fearsome grip

Friday 04 April 2008 00:00

Sitting here in London, having been finally granted asylum by Britain, I have much to be thankful for. I knew that if I returned to Russia, my life would be in mortal danger. No one can challenge the high-fliers in the Kremlin without consequences.

As a critical journalist, of course I was threatened. So I was thankful and impressed by the British Government's decision to grant me asylum. It was a brave decision and one that I hope signals an end to the appeasement that European governments have shown towards the Kremlin for too long.

It would have been so easy for Britain to avoid any more problems with Vladimir Putin and make the pragmatic decision to wash its hands of a troublesome journalist. In this world of realpolitik, such a decision would come as no surprise. But Britain did not – instead it decided to stand up for human rights.

Could it be that the British Government, unlike other European governments, has finally realised that appeasing the Kremlin has only made Russia's abuses of power and human rights worse? Far from fostering democracy in Russia, appeasement of Putin's regime has led to a situation in which a man could be killed with radioactive material in the centre of London by an agent of the Russian state.

Maybe it was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko that made the British Government see the folly of appeasing such an evil aggressor. Since then, there have been positive signs. In a recent report, the Foreign Office was brave enough to include Russia in a list of the worst human rights abusers, alongside countries such as Iran. I am also impressed by the attitude of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who has been strong in his dealings with the Kremlin.

If only we had stood up to Moscow earlier. If we had, I am positive that another dissident journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, would still be alive today. Russia might have developed at least one independent television station, or a newspaper that could challenge the Kremlin without fearing for its staff.

Recent events have demonstrated further the need for Europe to recognise Putin's abuses of power, not least the mockeries that were the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections. In one province, 109 per cent of the population was said to have turned out to vote for Putin's United Russia party. In another province, more than 90 per cent of the people were meant to have turned out to vote, with the vast majority supposedly voting for United Russia. But an independent household survey later found that only about 50 per cent had voted.

And, while I am now safe here in London, others remain at the mercy of a corrupt Russian regime. I was brought to tears by the story of Vasily Aleksanyan, whose only crime was being involved with Yukos Oil when Putin and his associates wanted control of the company. Vasily suffers from Aids and is nearly blind, but despite repeated pleas from the European Court of Human Rights, authorities in Moscow have refused to have him transferred to a specialist clinic.

Some visitors are often misled about the state of Russia because they only see Moscow, an international city like London or Tokyo. But a visit to any provincial town proves that the vast majority of the country is impoverished. Anyone who thinks conditions in Russia will improve when Dmitry Medvedev comes to power is fooling themselves. Russians are full of jokes about how he is just a servant to Putin.

And it does not matter who is next to sit in the president's chair – the real source of power in Russia's dictatorship is the secret service. They hold sway over the country and the sources of its wealth. Until the widespread corruption within Russia at every level is addressed, the country cannot make any progress. Nothing will change.

I cannot judge my fellow Russians for failing to stand up to their government. They have only just emerged from Soviet times, where the threat of the Gulag was ever-present. They had only a brief taste of freedom under Boris Yeltsin before Russia was once again dominated by the secret service – all that had changed was its name. But the people in the free nations of Europe can make a stand and should put pressure on their governments to do so.

Granting political asylum to me must not be the end of this country's brave stance against Putin – it must be the beginning of a concerted change in policy in dealing with him. Appeasement has not worked. It costs real lives of real people in Russia. It is time to champion the human rights for which the Kremlin has demonstrated such disdain.

The writer is a Russian journalist who fell foul of the authorities following the publication of her book Tales Of A Moscow Digger.

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