Russia has forged an informal network of authoritarian-minded states in Eurasia dedicated to silencing dissenters living in exile. A leading expert on Eurasian affairs has dubbed this coalition as the “Repressintern.”
The expert, Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, writing in a paper titled RepressIntern: Russian Security Cooperation with Fellow Authoritarians, asserts that an “Axis of Repression” has emerged in recent years, binding Russia and Belarus to Central Asia, via Azerbaijan. The term Repressintern is a play on the Communist International, or Comintern, the Moscow-dominated organization that worked from 1919-43 to promote global revolution.
The Repressintern, in Galeotti’s view, is chiefly designed to help the Kremlin reassert its influence across Eurasia. To achieve this aim, Russia has utilized its vast security and intelligence apparatus to help friendly authoritarian leaderships solidify their respective grasps on power by hounding dissenters wherever they may live .
“The strength and spread of Russia’s intelligence apparatus, combined with various regimes’ desires to secure themselves by observing, harassing or in some cases even eliminating political rivals abroad, has given Moscow a specific opportunity to gain leverage in its neighborhood,” Galeotti writes in his paper, which is part of a larger report, titled No Shelter: The Harassment of Activists Abroad by Intelligence Services from the Former Soviet Union. The report was published by the London-based Foreign Policy Centre in late November.
Shared Soviet-era experience is the glue that binds the Repressintern, according to Galeotti. Many top officials in intelligence-gathering and security-related agencies in Eurasian states all have something in common: they got their start within the KGB. “Even though in the 1990s, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan purged their security services of many ethnic Russians, the intelligence and security agencies of Belarus and Central Asia, in particular, are still dominated by veterans of the KGB,” Galeotti asserts.
On numerous occasions, Russia has extradited individuals to neighboring states, where they were likely to face politically motivated persecution.
“Regimes whose paranoia or hunger to visit vengeance on their enemies abroad outmatch their capabilities find particular value in their relationship with the Russians,” Galeotti’s paper states. “The FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] in particular has demonstrated a willingness to watch, arrest and sometimes deport targets of friendly regimes, especially Central Asian ones.”
Galleoti documents cases in which Russian intelligence agencies have helped friendly authoritarian states go after dissidents living in the European Union and elsewhere. For example, Belarus is relying on Russian help to track government critics active in neighboring Lithuania, Galleoti said, citing Lithuanian officials.
“This [cooperation] even appears to extend to ‘wet work,’ the Russian services’ euphemism for assassination. In 2014, for example, Uzbek émigré Abdullah Bukhari was murdered in Istanbul,” Galleoti writes.