An Australian community group campaigning against the Kremlin and the invasion of Ukraine has been targeted by politicians linked to Vladimir Putin, potentially leading members of the organization to face hefty fines or up to six years in prison if they travel to Russia.
Most important points:
- The Svoboda Alliance fights against pro-Putin propaganda
- A committee of the Russian parliament has proposed to recognize the alliance and 29 other organizations as “undesirable”.
- Analysts say it’s another reason for Australia to expel Russian diplomats who try to meddle in domestic affairs
The Svoboda Alliance of Australia and New Zealand is a Russian ethnic group that organizes public protests and tries to combat Russian propaganda Down Under.
This year it published a report that branded Russian Ambassador Alexey Pavlovsky a liar, questioned the true purpose and extent of Russia’s diplomatic presence in Australia and alleged that some new Russian passports were packaged in Coles free plastic supermarket bags that were normally used for nuts and had the words “may cause allergy”.
Last month, the alliance also helped organize a conference at the Australian National University in Canberra that looked at information warfare and how Russian diasporas were mobilized by the Kremlin’s intelligence services.
The Svoboda Alliance had known for some time that the Russian government was deeply unhappy with its work.
But on Wednesday night, a Russian parliamentary committee on countering foreign interference formally proposed to recognize the alliance’s activities — and the actions of 29 other organizations from 16 different “unfriendly” countries — as “undesirable.”
Some groups will also be considered “extremist”.
Commission President Vasily Piskarev claimed, without evidence, that “all these structures are controlled by authorities of NATO member states and are aimed at undermining our country (Russia) from within”.
The statement also added that the “committee had collected material on 150 citizens” who had called for sanctions against Russia and that the information would be sent to law enforcement agencies.
Australia is not a member of NATO, although it has irritated the Kremlin for its support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
As the ABC revealed earlier this month, the federal government is also “looking closely” at Russia’s “diplomatic profile” in Australia, amid lingering concerns about the scope of Russian intelligence operations here — activities the Svoboda Alliance has sought to highlight.
“Putin’s regime is a totalitarian regime. It represses and harms anyone who speaks out against it,” said the alliance’s Ilya Fomin.
“This proposed list shows that and only demonstrates the very poor human rights situation in Russia.”
“This is the very best proof that they see us as a threat.”
Designation a ‘sign of honor’
The other groups mentioned are pro-democracy Russian groups in countries such as the US, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Latvia.
The “undesirable” designation law was signed by Mr Putin in 2015.
Designated Groups are prohibited from holding public events in Russia, distributing promotional materials, and are prohibited from being customers of Russian banks and financial institutions.
“The findings of the State Duma committee can be seen as a badge of honor for Svoboda Alliance,” said Robert Horvath, a specialist in Russian politics at La Trobe University.
It now belongs to a relatively small club of democracy advocates, investigative journalism, media and religious organizations that have attacked the Putin regime in this way.
“By its very existence, the Svoboda Alliance is a refutation of the Putin regime’s doctrine of the ‘Russian world,’ the idea that Russians everywhere should share the Kremlin’s ideals and serve its purposes.”
Russians associated with groups after being designated could be fined or punished with up to six years in prison.
“Svoboda Alliance is a small but vocal group that aims to promote the anti-Russian agenda in Australia,” said a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Canberra.
“If it is indeed classified as an undesirable foreign organization under Russian law, it will hardly come as a surprise.”
But members of the Svoboda Alliance say they are prepared for the risk of retaliation and have long been aware of the dangers of speaking out against Putin.
“Many Russians abroad are really afraid to speak out because of the risk of persecution for them or their families back home, or worse,” Fomin said.
“We know all the poisoning stories, like Alexander Litvinenko, Alexei Navalny and the Skripals.
“We don’t want to be labeled as extremists, like terrorists, but if that’s how Putin’s government sees us, it’s better that it’s said explicitly.”
‘Ideal opportunity’ for government to express dissatisfaction
For some time now, Australian intelligence services have been concerned about the actions of some Russian nationals here.
Just before the latest election campaign, Labor urged the Morrison government to eliminate some Russian diplomats and support staff as punishment for atrocities in Ukraine.
Seven months later, this has not yet happened, partly because the State Department fears that expulsions could jeopardize the future of Australia’s diplomatic presence in Moscow.
But Mr Horvath argues that now is the time for the Australian government to act.
“I think we need to do more,” he said.
“For more than half a decade, Russian diplomats have tried to arm the Russian diaspora in Australia.
“Now the Russian state is targeting Russian Australians who uphold democratic values and human rights.
“It would be the ideal opportunity for the Australian Government to express its displeasure at this interference in our internal affairs by expelling the responsible diplomats.”
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Penny Wong responded to a letter from the Svoboda Alliance urging the expulsion of Russians.
“The Australian Government is clear that Russia’s diplomatic footprint should reflect Australia’s national interests, with an appropriate size and personnel profile,” she wrote.
“All options remain under consideration,” she added.
There are many irritations in the diplomatic relationship between Australia and Russia.
Earlier this month, the Australian federal police said the hack on health insurer Medibank could be traced to criminals in Russia and the prime minister declared that Russia must be held accountable.
A week ago, a Dutch court found three men – all members of Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine – guilty of downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the conflict zone in 2014.
The Kremlin has always denied any responsibility for the atrocity, which claimed 38 Australian lives.
In September, pro-Putin comedians with alleged connections to Russian intelligence released a video of their prank on Australian senators investigating a new kind of sanction that Russia has been campaigning furiously against around the world.
The Ukrainian ambassador and members of the Australian-Ukrainian community have also called for diplomatic expulsions since Russia launched its invasion in February.