Russians who are persecuted for political reasons may apply for a German residency permit under "international law or for pressing humanitarian reasons," according to German residency law. The Interior Ministry has said this rule is being applied "swiftly and unbureaucratically."
Among those who may apply for such protection are Russian human rights lawyers and people who worked for organizations classified as undesirable or foreign agents by Russia, DW has learned. Members of Russia's democratic opposition may also apply, as well as those who speak out publicly against Russia's war against Ukraine.
Lastly, journalists working for independent media outlets who may suffer the wrath of the Russian state can also seek shelter in Germany.
According to Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 241 Russian nationals have been granted residency since mid-May. Among them are 144 opposition figures, and an additional 97 family members.
Crackdown on Navalny staffers
Ksenia Serednik is one of them. She once worked as a staff coordinator for Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Starting in 2017, Serednik was ordered to pay numerous fines. After criminal proceedings were launched against Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, Serednik's apartment was searched in 2019. In 2021, she was arrested twice for helping organize rallies in support of Navalny following his return to Russia.
In December 2021, Serednik finally decided to leave Russia. At the time, scores of former Navalny staffers had their homes searched. "I wanted to stay, but I carry responsibility not just for myself, but also for my child," Serednik told DW. She has a 13-year-old daughter.
On December 28, Serednik, her husband and daughter drove to Armenia and then Georgia, where they applied for a German humanitarian visa. When Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Serednik was sure she had made the right decision.
Protection for some, but not others
Not all political activists seeking shelter in Germany are granted a residency permit.
Vadim Kobzev, like Serednik, was a member of Navalny's Rostov-on-Don team. He helped to organize public events and investigate local administrators suspected of malpractice. He was arrested four times, spending a total of 34 days in jail. Forced to endure dirty, cramped prison cells, Kobzev was deprived of bedsheets and clean drinking water.
In 2019, members of Russia's OMON special police searched his grandmother's house, where he was living at the time. Agents confiscated devices worth some €1,600 — even though he was a witness rather than a suspect in a donation trial involving the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Three of his bank accounts were subsequently frozen.
In the summer of 2021, Kobzev and his wife were interrogated by Russian investigators. They were accused of involvement in extremist activities designed to subvert Russia's conditional order. "It became clear to me then that I would be the next person to be jailed," Kobzev told DW.
In April 2022, the two left Russia, applying for humanitarian visas in Germany. Both applications were rejected, with authorities citing a lack of evidence to prove he had been persecuted for his political beliefs. German authorities also said he had moved to a "relative safe third country" and was therefore not entitled to protection. A letter provided by human rights organization Memorial underscoring that Kobzev faces grave danger in Russia did nothing to convince German authorities.
German authorities are hard to convince
Alexander Surinov, who previously worked as a staff coordinator for Navalny in Murmansk, had a similar experience. In early 2021, Surinov helped stage pro-Navalny rallies after the dissident returned from Germany to Russia following his medical treatment for Novichok poisoning. He was fined the equivalent of €12,000 for his political activism.
After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, authorities launched criminal proceedings against Surinov for allegedly acquiring a military identity card through illicit channels. Surinov, who is medically unfit to serve in the army, told DW: "It was clear they wanted to send me to war because of my political activism."
Surinov, just like Kobzev, was called to testify in the FBK donation trial. His bank accounts were frozen as well. "At the time, I was the only remaining Navalny staffer from Murmansk left in Russia and facing the prospect of being put on trial on extremism charges for working with the FBK," he told DW.
In April this year, he traveled to Belarus and then onward to Georgia, where he applied for a humanitarian visa in Germany. Yet he too was rejected, with German authorities arguing he had provided too little evidence of his persecution in Russia, despite showing documents to this effect. In addition, Surinov was told Georgia is a "relatively safe country."
So how safe is Georgia for Russians?
Surinov said that these days Georgia is not a safe country for Russians leaving their homeland because of political persecution. "We are sitting on a powder keg. Now there is a discussion here about compulsory visas for Russians," he said, adding that he knows of cases where Russians left Georgia for a day after their visa-free stay had expired and were not allowed back into the country.
Another risk, he said, is South Ossetia's upcoming referendum on joining Russia. "It was postponed indefinitely in May. I can't think how Georgia will treat Russians if this referendum takes place and South Ossetia is declared part of the Russian Federation."
'A political decision'
Wiebke Judith heads the legal and advocacy team at Pro Asyl, an organization that supports asylum-seekers coming to Germany for humanitarian reasons. Commenting on paragraph 22 of Germany's asylum act, she told DW that its wording indicates that a residence permit is granted to protect the political interests of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is "simply a political decision," she emphasized.
From her experience working with Afghan activists, whose evacuation to Germany has been subject to this regulation since the Taliban regained power, Judith notes that applications have to be justified in minute detail.
Before the Taliban regained power, only certain high-profile dissidents were allowed to enter Germany from Afghanistan, she said. Now, paragraph 22 is being applied more often. Still, she believes it is unlikely that this route will be open to a large number of Russian citizens, even if they have shown civic engagement in their home country.
Adapted from Russian: Markian Ostapchuk
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