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U.S. reporter says ouster from Russia harks back to Cold War

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MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry acknowledged Tuesday that it had barred a prominent American journalist from the country for five years after expelling him over a visa violation, an action that the ousted reporter and some Kremlin critics said was a chilling throwback to the Cold War.

“This situation with me is a warning to everybody about the cost of being too penetrating,” David Satter said in an interview from London. “You can report on it up to a point.”

The Foreign Ministry said it had posted a statement about Satter on its official website Tuesday in response to “biased reports in some Western media” about his expulsion. Satter was accredited in Russia by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which was among those publishing reports Monday about his expulsion.

Satter said he was specifically told that he had been barred on orders of the state security services. “That’s something I haven’t seen in all my years of writing and covering Russia,” he said.

Satter, 66, has covered Russia on and off since 1976 for a variety of news outlets and is the author of three books about the country. Among them is “Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State” (2003), which argued that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, was behind apartment building bombings in Moscow in 1999 that were blamed on separatists from Chechnya and led to the second Chechen war and propelled Vladimir Putin into the presidency.

According to the Foreign Ministry statement, Satter entered Russia on Nov. 21 without a valid visa and was ordered to report to the Federal Migration Service to obtain one. He visited the agency five days later, the ministry said.

As a result, the statement said, from “Nov. 22 through Nov. 26 this U.S. citizen was present on the territory of Russia illegally,” constituting “a flagrant violation of the Russian migration legislation.”

The statement did not explain, however, how Satter could have entered the country in the first place without a valid visa, or why he would have needed to visit the migration agency, which does not issue visas.

On Nov. 29, Satter was fined and expelled from Russia, effective Dec. 4, and ordered to be barred from obtaining a Russian visa for five years, the statement said.

Satter gave a somewhat different account, saying he was summoned to a Russian consulate in Kiev, Ukraine, in December, during a reporting trip there. On his Twitter account Tuesday, he quoted a Russian official there as telling him: "The competent organs have determined that your presence, on the territory of the Russian Federation, is undesirable."

“Competent organs” is a common euphemism for Russian security agencies.

In his interview Tuesday, Satter said the expulsion harked back to the Cold War (although some Western journalists have been barred or driven from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union). “People say they’re amazed this didn’t happen [to me] a long time ago, but for a long time they were trying to create the impression that what Western journalists write doesn’t bother them,” he said. “But in fact the pretense became a little too difficult. They couldn’t keep it up forever.”

Satter noted in an interview with the London-based Guardian on Monday that Russia is currently focused on improving its image in the run-up to next month’s Sochi Olympics. “They've released well-known political prisoners, they've released Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they've released the members of Pussy Riot punk rock band, they've released the crew to the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise. It doesn't make sense that they would ruin their image to a certain degree by taking such an action against free speech and against openness to the outside world.”

But, he said in the interview with the Los Angeles Times: “Olympics or no Olympics, obviously they wanted me out of there.”

One political analyst suggested that Satter's expulsion was a message to other Western reporters to tone down criticism of the Kremlin in advance of the Olympics.

“Satter's case is not a mistake or an embarrassing slip by the Kremlin,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “It is a real scare tactics message: Don't you dare spoil our image. Needless to say how counterproductive it really is, as no one can spoil the Kremlin's image worse than the Kremlin itself.”

But one pro-Kremlin political expert said Satter might have fallen victim to some political intrigue which had little or nothing to do with him personally.

“Of course David [Satter] remains a hostage of his own distorted notion that Russia has been going from bad to worse under Putin's guidance, but his bad stories of Russia have nothing to do with his expulsion,” Sergei Markov, a Kremlin advisor and vice president of the Russia Plekhanov University of Economics, said in an interview. “He must have been chosen as a famous personality to be temporarily sacrificed in some big tit-for-tat political game between Moscow and Washington, the details of which for now remain hidden from the public view.”

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

henry.chu@latimes.com

Staff writer Loiko reported from Moscow and Chu from London

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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