Russian dissidents find haven in Lithuania
Journalist Yevgeny Titov, reporting from Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, understood the risk he was taking.
He is one of a growing number of Russians seeking asylum in Lithuania, a small staunchly pro-Western state that makes no secret of its wariness towards the Kremlin, its unwanted Soviet-era master.
"When I was reporting about the bridge being built (by Russia) to Crimea, my friends received an SMS saying that I had been murdered," Titov, 41, told AFP, speaking in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Titov, working for the anti-Kremlin Novaya Gazeta daily in Moscow, received further death threats after exposing corruption surrounding the bridge project -- prompting his move to Lithuania in 2016 on the advice of a friend.
Vilnius granted Titov political asylum in July.
More than 30 other Russian dissidents have also received asylum in the Baltic state, along with special protective status for family members, since 2014.
Dozens more have sought refuge here, as well as in nearby Estonia and Latvia -- which like Lithuania are EU and NATO members.
All three are former Soviet-ruled republics that are now among Moscow's most vocal critics.
Vsevolod Chernozub, 32, was among the first to arrive in December 2013.
One of the leaders of the anti-Kremlin Solidarnost party, Chernozub decided to leave Russia during a heavy-handed crackdown triggered by mass protests against Putin's inauguration for a third Kremlin term in May 2012.
The demonstrations quickly descended into clashes with police.
Criminal charges were brought against around 30 demonstrators, many of whom were sentenced to prison terms of up to four-and-a-half years.
- They 'feel safe' -
While he could have sought refuge elsewhere in the EU, Chernozub says he chose Vilnius for practical reasons, notably because of the ethnic Russian community that settled in Lithuania during nearly five decades of Soviet rule.
"Lithuania is a country where you can still speak Russian on a daily basis," he told AFP. "My wife was pregnant at the time and she wanted a Russian-speaking doctor," he noted.
The Baltic state has welcomed dissidents, while underscoring its support for opposition circles in Russia.
"One of the principles (of our relationship with Russia) is to support civil society there," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.
"Lithuania is a place where they (Russians) can feel safe and we are proud of it," he said.
The foreign ministry has held an annual forum for Russian opposition circles since 2013, and former Russian chess world champion Garry Kasparov, an outspoken Kremlin critic, hosts human rights events in Vilnius.
With the backing of the Lithuanian parliament, Russian dissidents spearheaded a move in May to rename a square outside the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician gunned down near the Kremlin in February 2015 by unknown assailants.
Their activism in Lithuania has not gone unnoticed by Moscow, according to Titov.
"The Russia 24 propaganda channel aired several reports about our initiatives. They called us all kinds of names. That just means that what we're doing is important," he told AFP.
- 'Russia Tomorrow' -
Titov now works as a journalist for the Russian service of Delfi, a popular news website with branches in all three Baltic states.
Chernozub, meanwhile, has teamed up with several fellow Russians to create the "Russia Tomorrow" website, an ironic allusion to "RT" formerly known as "Russia Today", Moscow's state-funded international broadcaster.
The new dissidents make up a tiny part of Lithuania's ethnic Russian minority, where pro-Kremlin views prevail.
The community accounts for about six percent of the Baltic state's overall population of 2.9 million.
All three Baltic states were deeply rattled by its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which prompted NATO to quickly ramp up its presence along its eastern flank.
Chernozub warned that the open atmosphere that reigned briefly in Russia during the football World Cup tournament could soon give way to fresh crackdowns on the opposition.
"During the World Cup the situation was frozen, with few protests and few arrests, but now I don't know what will happen," Chernozub told AFP.
© 2018 AFP