Russia said today it has barred a journalist for US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from the country for five years over a visa infraction, a charge rejected by the veteran American journalist, who described it as "bureaucratic trickery" to keep him out of the country.
The barring of David Satter, who has written several books about Russia, appears to reflect the Kremlin's nervousness about critical opinion before next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Satter has been strongly critical of the Games, which Vladimir Putin has made a priority of his presidency. In a recent commentary posted on CNN's website, Satter criticised the International Olympic Committee's "irresponsibility" in choosing Sochi and warned that it could lead to "one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the Olympics."
Satter began working in September for RFE/RL, which is funded by the US Congress to support human rights, democracy and other US priorities.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the US journalist had not applied for an extension of his visa within the prescribed time. Satter argued that the case was bureaucratic obfuscation, and RFE/RL President Kevin Klose said in a statement that barring Satter from entering Russia was a "fundamental violation of the right of free speech."
Satter insisted that the ministry had promised him a new visa, but failed to provide a letter of support on time, causing the migration agency to declare him in violation of visa rules. Satter left Russia on December 4 on a court order and tried to obtain a new visa in Ukraine, but he said a Russian diplomat there read him a statement on December 25 saying that Russian "competent organs" considered his presence in the country "undesirable."
Satter, speaking from London, said the Russian explanation "is a case of just bureaucratic trickery."
Klose said the US Embassy has lodged a protest with the Foreign Ministry.
Satter, 66, first worked in Moscow in 1976-1982 as a correspondent of the British newspaper Financial Times, and has written extensively about the Soviet Union and Russia since then. His books include "Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State," which focuses on the alleged role of Russian security agencies in apartment building explosions in 1999 that triggered the second war in Chechnya. An abridged Russian-language version was published recently in Moscow.
"To say that I'm not allowed on the territory of the Russian Federation at the request of the security services - this I haven't seen applied to a journalist in my entire career of writing about Russia," he said.
The expulsion of Western reporters was common during Cold War times, and the Kremlin has revived the practice in recent years. In 2011, Russia denied entry to Luke Harding, a Moscow correspondent for the London-based Guardian. In 2012, French freelance journalist Anne Nivat had her business visa canceled after she tried to gather information about opposition groups in the provinces.
Satter's expulsion will likely further strain US-Russian ties, which have been hurt by disputes over Washington's missile defense plans, Russia's rights record and Ukraine, which in November ditched a pact with the European Union in exchange for a US$15 billion bailout package from Russia.
Some Russian commentators criticised the government's decision to expel Satter, saying that it would only hurt the Kremlin's efforts to polish Russia's image before the Olympics.
"Whoever made this decision is a fool who has inflicted much more damage on Russia than any spy," Viktor Kremenyuk, a deputy director of the state-funded USA and Canada Institute, said in an online commentary.