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Russian Kremlin Critics Fleeing To Bulgaria Often Find They Are Not Welcome

Irina Dmitrieva and Andrei Karpov protest in front of the Bulgarian government building in Sofia.
Irina Dmitrieva and Andrei Karpov protest in front of the Bulgarian government building in Sofia.

SOFIA -- Amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Andrei Karpov and Irina Dmitrieva, two Russian anti-Kremlin critics who have had their asylum requests rejected by Bulgaria, stood silently outside government offices in Sofia for several days last week, holding up a placard that read: "The State Agency for Refugees is against Russian refugees."

It's a message that resonated with many Russians seeking asylum here, who, in the vast majority of cases, have failed to convince the bureaucrats at Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees (DAB) that their cases warrant it.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a total of 232 Russian citizens have applied for asylum in Bulgaria but only 15 have so far received refugee or humanitarian status, according to data from DAB that was shared with RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

The reason? The agency contends that in most cases the applicants will unlikely face any risk of persecution in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has tightened the screws even more since the start of the war, shuttering nearly all independent media, NGOs, and any other remnant of civil society, while the State Duma, the country's largely rubber-stamp lower house of parliament, has passed sweeping censorship laws.

"We can never be safe at home after leaving the country, where our hatred of Putin, his policies, his war, were well-known to the authorities there," Dmitrieva told RFE/RL. "DAB pretends that there is no repression in Russia, no persecution of opponents of the regime, while thousands of Russians are in prison for making lesser statements than we did."

The DAB wasn't convinced by Karpov and Dmitrieva's three-day vigil outside the Council of Ministers, which oversees the refugee agency. DAB accused the two of trying to pressure "the agency to grant international protection to every Russian citizen who requested it, even to those who do not meet the conditions," it said in comments to RFE/RL.

WATCH: Russian opposition activist Aleksandr Stotsky says he could be sent to war or prison if he is forced to return to Russia, but a Bulgarian court ruled Stotsky faces no serious threat.

Outspoken Russian Anti-War Activist Denied Asylum By Bulgaria
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Although many are wary of speaking on the record, some lawyers defending refugees have suggested that the attitude of some DAB bureaucrats may merely reflect the generally positive view of Russia that many in Bulgaria still have.

Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member state, has strong cultural, historical, and language ties with Russia, although the Kremlin's war against Ukraine has caused major cracks in that support.

While firm figures are elusive, hundreds of thousands of Russians are thought to have left Russia, especially after Moscow announced a partial military mobilization on September 21, 2022. Georgia and Kazakhstan -- former Soviet republics that offer Russians visa-free travel -- have been top destinations.

The European Union saw a surge in arrivals after the mobilization announcement. Some 66,000 Russian citizens entered the bloc from September 19-25.

The number fell to 53,000 in the week starting September 26, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. The agency cited a stricter EU visa policy and Russian measures to keep military-age men from leaving as possible reasons for the drop-off. Most Russians then entering the EU already had residence permits or visas, while others had dual citizenship, Frontex said.

According to Eurostat, Russian citizens filed 18,400 applications for asylum in European countries in 2022, with Germany (3,855), France (3,350), and Poland (2,215) the top destinations.

Asylum applications aren't the only way that Russians can secure residency visas in Bulgaria. They can be granted if the applicant is opening a business or will be representing a company. Such a route, however, often requires the applicant to have significant financial resources or to own investments or real estate in Bulgaria.

For Karpov, his problems in his homeland began on March 21, 2021, when he held a solitary picket outside the Kremlin on Red Square in Moscow. (Under Russian law, a protester is allowed to hold a solitary picket without notifying the authorities in advance).

Karpov held up a placard reading "No to repression! Freedom for political prisoners." After about five minutes, police intervened, dragged him away to a police station, where Karpov said he was beaten, suffering a concussion that a medical exam reportedly later showed.

Besides his solo protest, Karpov had also run afoul of the Russian authorities by contributing to opposition activist Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Fund, declared "extremist" by Russian authorities in June 2021. Navalny has been sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges that supporters and the West say are politically motivated.

As Russia's crackdown on dissent intensified in step with the aggression against Ukraine, Karpov again found himself in the crosshairs of the authorities. And he wasn't alone. More than 16,000 Russians were arrested for anti-war actions between February and July 2022, according to the Russian human rights monitor OVD-Info, an apparent peak of anti-war activity that has since waned.

Karpov was accused of "discrediting" the Russian Army in social media posts, a criminal offense in Russia punishable by up to five years in prison.

According to Karpov, police offered him a deal: Criminal proceedings against him would be dropped if he agreed to sign a contract for military service in Ukraine. In a bid to stall them, Karpov said he had lost his military identification and would not get a replacement card for about a week.

That worked, and Karpov fled his hometown of Trubchevsk in Russia's Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine. Like other fleeing Russians, Karpov flew first to Istanbul and then made his way by car to the border with Bulgaria. At the Malko Tarnovo border crossing with Turkey on November 9, 2022, Karpov asked for political asylum in Bulgaria. Karpov was left in limbo for several days, until his documents were accepted by DAB for consideration on November 13, 2022.

Karpov was then transferred to a refugee camp in Sofia. It was only in February this year that Karpov was interviewed by DAB and, seven months later in August, Karpov got the news he was dreading: His political asylum request had been rejected.

At first, DAB faulted him for failing to file proper documents backing his refugee claims, although Karpov said he had submitted the necessary paperwork and had copies to prove it.

Later, however, DAB offered a more definitive reason, concluding Karpov faced no "well-founded fears of persecution" if he were to return to Russia, noting the situation there "cannot be defined as an armed conflict," according to an official document seen by RFE/RL spelling out the reasons why Karpov was denied humanitarian status. If someone does not meet the criteria for refugee status but is deemed to possibly face mortal danger if repatriated, they can be offered humanitarian status.


Dmitrieva arrived in Bulgaria in March 2022 with her daughter, who was 13 years old at the time. Dmitrieva, from Moscow, said she was a veteran of anti-Putin demos back home predating Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Dmitrieva filed for asylum with DAB on March 31, 2022, but had her request rejected six months later on September 21, 2022.

"When my daughter turned 14, she went through a separate interview at DAB, and they issued a separate asylum-seeker document. What amazed me really was that not only was I refused but so was she. We then had to appeal the refusal in two courts. The situation is absurd," she said.

According to DAB, "Dmitrieva's personal refugee story shows that she does not have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of her race, religion, national, ethnic, political, or social origin and that there is no persecution in respect of her and the conditions for the grant of humanitarian status do not exist."

Of the 232 applicants for political asylum in Bulgaria since February 2022, 115 people have had their applications refused. Many have appealed and have the chance to appeal again before they are sent home. During this period, 58 Russian applicants have had their proceedings terminated. That usually means that the asylum seekers have given up on their claims and decided to return home.

One of Dmitrieva's appeals ended with a victory of sorts. The Supreme Administrative Court, which oversees the application of the country's law, ruled DAB "should have investigated Dmitrieva's refugee history more thoroughly." DAB has so far not begun a review of her case. Her daughter's administrative case is still ongoing.

In this legal limbo, Dmitrieva found herself without her personal documents, as they remain at the refugee agency while her case is decided. Instead, she has been issued a temporary residence card, with which she can neither find employment, open a bank account, nor receive any school benefits for her daughter. Karpov complains about the same problem.

"Temporary documents do not even have a photo and are not recognized by anyone," Dmitrieva lamented.

Despite the apparent long odds, some asylum requests filed by Russians in Bulgaria have ultimately had a happy ending.

Margarita Shurupova came to Bulgaria with her husband and two sons from Kazakhstan, where they received Czech visas in the spring of 2022. They wanted to move to Bulgaria as they have relatives here.

DAB initially refused asylum to all four. The family appealed, and the Sofia Court of Appeal ultimately ruled that the agency should reconsider its refusal and reassess the need for protection for the mother and youngest child.

For the other two family members, the Administrative Court in Varna, a resort city on the Black Sea coast, upheld DAB's rejection of refugee status and allowed the father and eldest son to be transferred to the Czech Republic, which, it argued, had issued the first visas.

Eventually, DAB allowed them to resubmit their asylum applications. On October 9, Shurupova posted on Facebook: "The Bulgarian Refugee Agency granted me and my youngest son refugee status. According to our lawyer, my husband and eldest son will get their status a little later as they had to reapply."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service's Georgi Angelov
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    Georgi A. Angelov

    Georgi A. Angelov has been a journalist for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service since 2022. He started his career 20 years ago at the Smolyan newspaper Otzvuk. He then worked for a number of national newspapers. He was a reporter at Dnevnik, an editor at, and a writer and correspondent at the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle.

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