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Russia's New Exiles

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At first there appears to be little linking these three men. One is a 28-year-old entrepreneur and founder of Russia's most popular social network; the second, a respected economist who has been an advisor to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev; and the third, a world-renowned former chess grandmaster and outspoken critic of the Kremlin.

What links Pavel Durov, Sergei Guriev and Garry Kasparov together is that all three have fled Russia in the past three months amid fears of politically motivated prosecution. They are, in effect, a new generation of Russian exiles.

Exile was a common fate for dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov in the 1970s and 1980s. Post-Soviet Russia has, by and large, avoided such heavy-handed tactics. However, the latest string of high-profile emigrants suggests the Kremlin may be turning the screws on previously untouchable figures.

Pavel Durov, occasionally called "Russia's Mark Zuckerberg", is the multimillionaire founder of social network, VKontakte. Durov's troubles began in April of this year when police announced he was suspected in a hit-and-run incident in St. Petersburg, where a traffic cop was injured by a white Mercedes. Video of the incident was broadcast on Russian television. Durov denied he was the driver and stated he didn't even own a car.

On April 17, Russia's feared Investigative Committee raided the company's headquarters. The following day, it was announced that Durov's business partners, Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, who owned 48 percent of the company's voting shares, had sold them to United Capital Partners. UPC's President, Ilya Sherbovich, has strong links to the Kremlin and sits on the board of directors of both Rosneft, (Russia's state oil company) and Transneft (Russia's oil pipeline monopoly). Saint Petersburg police announced they wished to speak to Durov as a "witness."

Durov has disappeared, most likely to Italy, where he spent much of his formative years. Durov, who identifies as a libertarian and has refrained from personally criticizing the regime, likely fell foul of the authorities for his refusal to shut down groups on his site and hand over information on users involved in the protests that arose in the wake of December 2011's Duma elections.

Sergei Guriev was Rector of Russia's prestigious New Economic School and a board member of Russia's Sberbank until May 30, when he tendered his resignations and announced that he would not be returning from France, where he was visiting his wife and children. Guriev wrote an article in The New York Times explaining that he had been targeted by the Investigative Committee following recommendations he had made in a report calling for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch imprisoned on charges of tax fraud. Amnesty International considers Khodorkovsky to be a prisoner of conscience.

Guriev claimed he was called (like Durov) as a "witness", but was subjected to interrogations and extensive requests for personal documents about the Khodorkovsky case. He stated that he and his wife were under surveillance and he had concluded his liberty was under threat.

Following Guriev's announcement, on June 6 another high-profile Russian, former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, announced that he too would not be returning to Russia. Kasparov has been an outspoken critic of Putin for some time and has been arrested before for illegal demonstrations.

On his Facebook page, Kasparov explained (in English) that, "Putin is cracking down harder than ever and is showing he is willing to create a new generation of political prisoners unseen since the days of Stalin. I have already been 'invited' to speak to prosecutors and such invitations have a way, at a minimum, of limiting one's freedom of movement. Adding another victim to the regime's list will not do much good."

The three cases display striking similarities. In each, the individual is questioned by members of the feared Investigative Committee, often as a "witness" to another case. The questioning and requests for personal information both interfere with the individual's day-to-day life and create a pervading sense of unease and fear. The cumulative effect of this questioning is to leave the individual in no doubt that life will be much easier if he or she leaves the country.

This process is much easier than actually putting people on trial. The departure of a high-profile individual creates much less of an impact in the Western press than the highly politicized trials of opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, on trial for alleged fraud, members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot, or Khodorkovsky. The process also gives the Kremlin plausible deniability - Putin's spokesperson Dmitri Peskov claims Guriev's move is solely for personal reasons and he is not wanted for any crime.

The Kremlin has discovered it is better to have troublemakers move abroad than to make potential martyrs of them at home. With Russia currently clamping down on dissent on all fronts, we can expect to see more high-profile Russians packing their bags for good in the future.