Journalist barred from Russia hopes for 'tough response' from US (Q&A)


This photo taken on Jan. 3 shows Russian President Vladimir Putin inspecting sporting venues in Sochi ahead of the Winter Olympics which start on Feb. 7.



American journalist David Satter said Thursday that he hopes the US government will make a “tough response” to Russia’s decision to bar him from entering the country.

Satter, who's been working in Moscow as an advisor and contributor to the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was attempting to renew his Russian visa in neighboring Ukraine in December when he was told his presence in Russia was “undesirable” and his visa application was rejected. 

The Russian authorities said Satter, a former correspondent for the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, had violated visa regulations and would be barred from the country for five years.

Satter says the allegations are “bogus.” 

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Kevin Klose, the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said the decision to deny Satter a visa was a “fundamental violation of free speech and journalistic liberty.”

The dispute comes at a sensitive time for Russia, with the Sochi Winter Olympics due to start in just a few weeks.

More from GlobalPost: Sochi may be the safest place in Russia during the Winter Olympics (Q&A)

This isn't the first time the critic of President Vladimir Putin has fallen afoul of Russian authorities. 

Satter, who has been covering Russia since the 1970s and has written several books about the country,including one subtitled “Rise of the Russian Criminal State,” has been denied visas in the past.

He's one of a handful of American journalists to be barred from Russia since the end of the Cold War. 

GlobalPost spoke to Satter, who is currently in London fighting to have the decision overturned. The transcript of the interview, below, was edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do you think you were kicked out of Russia?

The Russian authorities themselves made it clear that the reason for it was because they regarded me as undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation, so they took this action.

They said the competent organs, which is a reference to the security police, have decided that my presence is undesirable and that’s all the reason they need to give. It clearly is the real reason but they don’t say why.

If they didn’t consider my presence undesirable they wouldn’t take these steps. But in what respect they consider my presence undesirable, this is something we don’t know, we can only speculate.

They’ve not been specific. They have not made any specific charges except for some purely bogus charges about a visa violation.

This wasn't your first run-in with the Russian authorities. Can you briefly describe your previous experience with them?

In 1979, there was an attempt to expel me when I was the Financial Times correspondent in Moscow and I was accused of hooliganism, again in an incident that they created, that they organized.

I went with my mother and sister to visit the town in Ukraine from which my mother’s family originated and that town later became famous. It’s Chernobyl.

At that time it was just a sleepy little place, and we got permission after going through a complicated bureaucratic process to go there and the authorities tried to cut short our visit and I refused to allow that and in fact I insisted that we stay for the full time that we were authorized to be there. They then wrote in a newspaper that I was guilty of hooliganism because of this and they demanded that I be thrown out.

Anyway this was the pretext.

In the 1980s, I was denied visas to go to Russia, and in 1988 they denied me a visa and then I was allowed to go in when the [US] State Department refused to give a visa to a Russian journalist who was preparing to go to the United States.

After that there was an argument in 1990, they didn’t want to let me in, but I was writing for the Reader’s Digest at the time and the Digest insisted that if I was excluded they would cancel plans for a Russian language edition of Reader’s Digest and the Russians backed down. That was shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union.

And then over the course of the next 20 years or so I did not have difficulty, but there began to be problems again after I wrote an article about the Beslan school massacre in which Russian troops opened fire on the hostages and killed hundreds of them, and I said this was a crime against humanity.

After that the foreign ministry refused to sponsor me for a correspondent’s visa, but they allowed me to continue to come to the country on short-term business visas. And then this most recent incident. 

The New York Times noted that ABC journalists were barred from Russia in 2005, and journalist Steve LeVine had his visa revoked in 1995. How significant do you view the denial of your visa in light of those?

Those incidents are really different. In the case of the ABC, they were told that they wouldn’t be given visas, but they didn’t have a bureau and they never tried to go into Russia.

I don’t know what happened with Steve LeVine. He was not living in Russia as far as I know. They may not have given him a visa to travel there.

But I was living in Russia, I was an accredited correspondent, all my belongings are in Russia and also I‘ve been covering Russia, writing about it, for almost four decades.

Both of the other cases mentioned by the NYT are somewhat ambiguous, I don’t know the details of the LeVine case, but no one ever tested the supposed action against the ABC and that was in any case a retaliation over a specific event whereas this is a case of a journalist being declared undesirable by the security organs and not being allowed to return to the country in which he was living.

What does this say about US-Russia relations?

Well, it means that they feel they can get away with anything. I’m hoping it will [impact US-Russia relations]. Only time will tell.

It depends how principled our people are. I’m not 100 percent sure about how our guys are going to react, but I’m hoping they’ll make a tough response because that’s what’s necessary.

Do you believe it's tied to the Winter Olympics?

Not really, no. I think the link is to my past work and what they expected from me in the future.

Is there anything you were working on that you think could have triggered this response? Or could it have something to do with your employer Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty?

I was an advisor to the bureau of Radio Liberty and Radio Liberty that is one of the few sources of uncensored information in Russia and the idea that I was having an influence on what they did may have been of sufficient importance to them that they decided to act.

I think they didn’t like the combination of me and Radio Liberty. And of course they were concerned about me too as an individual and the fact that I know the country. Many journalists who come here do not.

What happens now?

We don’t accept the decision as legitimate and we’re going to work to have it cancelled. I should go back to Moscow. We are definitely going to make every effort to have this set aside.