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Russian rock band that protested war may be deported to Moscow by Thailand

RIGA, Latvia — Members of a prominent self-exiled Russian rock group that publicly opposed the invasion of Ukraine may face deportation from Thailand back to Moscow.

Supporters fear that musicians in the band — Bi-2 — may face persecution if they return to Russia, and that their case could be a warning to artists who criticize President Vladimir Putin but manage to thrive abroad despite Kremlin efforts to cut them off from their audiences.

Seven members of Bi-2 were detained in Thailand last week after a show on Phuket island, with authorities citing problems with permits.

In a statement, the band said it has always held concerts “in accordance with local laws and practices,” adding that the show’s local organizer incorrectly filled out the paperwork, a minor offense for which they were each fined about $84 and paid on the spot.

But after the hearing, the band members were detained by the Thai immigration police and taken to Bangkok, where the authorities are expected to rule on their deportation.

“We have not been presented with any additional charges,” the band representatives said in a message shared on Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. “The situation and the noise around it suggest that outside pressure played a significant role in our detention. We know that the reasons for this pressure are our creativity, our views, our position.”

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Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, who has been in touch with the band, said that Russian authorities have been putting pressure on their Thai counterparts to deport the musicians to Russia. In the statement, Bi-2 said they weren’t provided a translator during the hearing and couldn’t understand the case documents.

“With all the procedural violations … it becomes clear that this process is being controlled from Moscow,” Russian music producer and journalist Mikhail Kozyrev said in an interview with the independent Russian-language channel TV Rain. “This is such a demonstrative reprisal to reprimand all the artists who chose not to support the war. The message here is: ‘We will find you and get you, wherever you are.’”

Russia’s consul general in Phuket, Vladimir Sosnov, told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that consular officials had not been involved in the deportation process.

According to Sosnov, five of the seven band members hold Russian passports, while one entered Thailand on an Israeli passport and another with an Australian passport. “According to local laws, deportation is carried out by direct flight to the country where the passport was issued,” the agency added.

Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said she is not surprised that antiwar artists are facing issues while touring abroad, and sought to draw a connection to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“No one wants the problems that can arise with people who sponsor terrorism,” she told Podyem media. “The terrorist attacks committed by Zelensky’s ghouls horrify the whole world.”

There is no known legal case launched against the Bi-2 members in Russia, so Moscow had no basis to request their extradition. But Bi-2 supporters fear that if they are deported to Russia, they could face criminal charges stemming from their earlier antiwar statements.

For Thailand, the case is diplomatically complicated. Several members of the band are dual Israeli-Russian citizens, which allows them to contest the destination country in case they are deported. Two other members of the band are not Russian citizens, according to the Bi-2 statement, and cannot be deported to Russia.

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Bi-2, whose founding members hail from Belarus, is one of the most successful Russian-language rock bands since the end of the Soviet Union. In 2022, its members refused to perform at a venue that was adorned with a pro-war and pro-Putin banner. Their concerts in Russia were eventually canceled, and the band went into self-exile.

“I’m not coming back to Russia,” lead singer Yegor Bortnik, who uses the stage name Lyova, wrote in a comment on his Instagram page last year. “The only thing Putin’s Russia evokes right now is disgust.”

Mainstream artists who remained in Russia after the February 2022 invasion had little choice but to follow the unspoken rule of supporting the war or, at least, no discussing it. Those who left the country lost record deals, studios and part of their audience but have had the freedom to continue speaking out against the war. Many found their acts can thrive abroad even without Russian venues or found new audiences of like-minded Russians who also fled.

But recently some concerts have been banned in countries that emerged as Russian diaspora hubs, raising fears that Moscow is pressuring governments to cut off dissident artists.

Before the Bi-2 detentions, Thailand canceled shows of two antiwar Russian artists, stand-up comedians Ruslan Beliy and Maxim Galkin, both of whom have been labeled as “foreign agents” by the Russian government, a designation used to target many opposition politicians, artists, journalists, and activists.

Galkin, who often criticizes Russian authorities and the war in Ukraine in his monologues, was recently denied entry to Indonesia, where he planned a show.

“The reason was given almost immediately and repeated several times by different border service employees — a letter from the Russian government asking not to let me into Bali,” Galkin wrote on his Instagram page.

Galkin and other artists have also said that organizers in Dubai have asked Russian artists to tone down any pro-Ukrainian rhetoric.

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