The Russian spies who raised us

For fans of the series “The Americans,” spy stories in general, and citizenship policy wonks, this long read of the Vavilov brothers, their parents and the citizenship case is fascinating:

Nine hundred kilometres away, at a townhouse near Boston, two other “Foleys” were deep in their own state of shock: the Canadian-born sons of the fake Tracey Foley and her fellow-spy husband, Donald Heathfield, whose bogus ID was also stolen from a dead Montreal infant. Alexander Foley was 16 when the story hit, and his older brother, Timothy, had just turned 20. They could do nothing but watch as FBI agents burst in and handcuffed their parents. As Tim later recounted in a sworn affidavit: “I was shocked in ways words cannot describe.”

Up until that moment, the brothers insist, they had no idea their mother and father were undercover Russian “illegals” deployed by the KGB in the late 1980s, first to Canada, then to America—or that their parents’ real names were Elena Vavilova and Andrey Bezrukov. The sons had no clue, in other words, that their surname since birth was a fraud, swiped from a dead baby girl and passed on to them.

If the details read like an episode of The Americans, the Emmy-nominated FX television show, there’s good reason: the series, about a Soviet spy couple and the secrets they hide from their U.S.-born children, was inspired by the same FBI bust that exposed Tim and Alex’s mom and dad. But here is the true-life subplot you won’t see on TV: a years-long court battle over whether the kids should have to pay for their parents’ crimes with their Canadian citizenship.

Although both brothers were born in Toronto, immigration officials concluded (after the spy ring was revealed) that the boys were never Canadian to begin with because their mother and father were “employees of a foreign government,” making the kids ineligible for status under the Citizenship Act. In June, however, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled otherwise, ordering Ottawa to reinstate Alex’s citizenship (his case is furthest along) and propelling the bizarre saga back into the headlines. “[T]he sins of parents ought not to be visited upon children without clear authorization by law,” the judgment reads.

What happens next is in the hands of the Trudeau government, which has until Sept. 20 to decide whether to pursue an appeal at the Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for the federal immigration department would only say that officials are “carefully reviewing” the June ruling.

Like all the great espionage thrillers, there is one more twist: CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, has told Immigration that Tim, the eldest brother, did indeed know the truth about his parents’ double lives—and that he pledged to follow in their footsteps. According to CSIS, Tim had been “sworn in” by the SVR, the KGB’s post-Soviet successor, by the time the FBI showed up. (Tim adamantly denies the allegation, saying in his affidavit that “no evidence of my involvement has ever been presented.”)

…Though now the stuff of headlines, the brothers’ legal fight began quietly, when both tried to renew their Canadian passports. Because their surname (Foley) was now a confirmed fraud, Ottawa told them they would need to update their birth certificates. They complied, taking a version of their mother’s real last name: Vavilov. But when Tim and Alex reapplied for passports, they instead received letters from the registrar of citizenship, informing them they were no longer Canadian in the eyes of the law.

Technically, the feds did not revoke their citizenship. In Ottawa’s opinion, they were never citizens to begin with because each parent was working as a “representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government,” a rare exception to the birthright rule under section 3(2)(a) of the Citizenship Act.

Who fits that definition of “representative or employee” is the central issue of the brothers’ court challenges. Ottawa contends that the phrase means exactly what it says: any representative or employee of a foreign government, period. Tim and Alex argue that the clause is extremely specific and applies only to foreigners who enjoy diplomatic immunity—which their parents clearly did not, having operated deep in the shadows.

In 2015, a Federal Court judge agreed with the government’s plain reading of the law, ruling, in Alex’s case, that “the wording is clearly meant to cover individuals who are in Canada as agents of a foreign government, whatever their mandate.” In June, however, the Federal Court of Appeal reached the opposite conclusion: that only those with diplomatic immunity fall under the “employee of a foreign government” exception. Under that narrow interpretation, the court ruled in its 2-1 decision, Alex is clearly a citizen. Any other conclusion is “not supportable, defensible or acceptable,” the judgment reads.

As the Trudeau Liberals ponder one last appeal to the Supreme Court (again, the government has until Sept. 20 to seek leave), the stakes extend well beyond a granular point of law. Between the lines of all the legal briefs is a much larger debate being waged in the court of public opinion: who deserves citizenship—and who doesn’t? As the case plays out, after all, this same government is poised to restore citizenship to Zakaria Amara, a convicted, foreign-born terrorist who plotted to kill hundreds of fellow Canadians. For Amara to retain status while two Toronto-born brothers with no criminal records are denied it would present a striking, if not absurd, contrast.

Ottawa must consider something else, too: that one brother may not have been as oblivious as the other. Although it was Alex who won his case, the judgment, if left standing, would surely apply to Tim—who, according to CSIS, knew about his parents’ covert activities and had been “sworn in” by the SVR prior to their arrests. What CSIS revealed to immigration bureaucrats appears to be the first official confirmation of a bombshell Wall Street Journal report published in 2012, which claimed that Tim had agreed to return to his parents’ homeland to begin formal espionage training. During one conversation with his parents, the article claimed, the eldest son “stood up and saluted ‘Mother Russia.’ ”

As damning as the allegation may be, it has no real bearing on the specific issue at hand: the definition of “employee of a foreign government.” In other words, if the latest ruling is not overturned, the feds will have little choice but to recognize Tim’s citizenship and, like his little brother, let him come home—regardless of the suspicion swirling over his head. (If Canadian authorities then choose to launch a criminal investigation, that’s a whole different story. Either way, though, a Canadian citizen cannot be expelled.)

Which raises yet another question for Ottawa to ponder: should the government attempt to appeal Alex’s ruling solely because it would present the best possible chance of keeping Tim out of the country?

Source: The Russian spies who raised us

After St. Petersburg bombing, a notable absence: Russian anti-Islam backlash – CSMonitor.com

Interesting take:

Russia has been at war with Islamic enemies for over 500 years. Over the centuries, it fought long battles to subdue Tatars and other Muslim tribes who are now part of Russia. It also waged wars against the Persian and Turkish empires, incorporating many of their former territories into Imperial Russia.

Today, some of Russia’s most “troublesome” minorities are traditionally Muslim people with long histories of conflict with Russia, such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars. But so are some of its most successful and prosperous regions, especially Tatarstan, which has found its own formula for quelling internal Islamist extremism and co-existing, sometimes uneasily, with Moscow.

That’s one reason why most Russians don’t see Muslims as a faceless “other,” but are able to differentiate between different groups of them, says Alexey Malashenko, an Islam specialist with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

“We’ve been living among and, yes, sometimes fighting these people for hundreds of years. We know them,” he says. “The average Russian can tell the difference between a Chechen, a Tatar, an Uzbek, and a Tajik and, believe me, there are big differences. There is a great deal of xenophobia under the surface in Russia, and sometimes it comes out,” as it has in occasional urban race riots between Russians and migrant laborers – who are especially numerous in big cities like Moscow.

“But overt anti-Muslim political appeals, such as you do see in some Western countries, are absolutely impossible in Russia. Our authorities do not need or want the instability that could result from playing that card,” he says.

Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have been very careful to separate Islam from terrorism, and to make that a frequent public message.

Two years ago Mr. Putin presided, alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, at the inauguration of the $170 million new Moscow Cathedral Mosque, a huge downtown temple that can accommodate 10,000 worshipers. With an eye both to Russia’s millions of Muslims and Russia’s growing role in the Middle East, he used the occasion to condemn Islamist extremism.

“We see what’s happening in the Middle East where terrorists of the so-called Islamic State discredit a great world religion, discredit Islam by sowing hate, killing people, and destroying the world’s cultural heritage in a barbaric way. Their ideology is built on lies, on open perversion of Islam. They are trying to recruit followers in our country as well,” he said.

The powerful Orthodox Church has also walked a cautious line. When Russia intervened in Syria almost two years ago, church officials hailed it in potentially inflammatory terms as a “holy war.” But the church, too, has been at pains to stress that it is a fight against “terrorism,” not Islam, and has repeatedly called for an alliance between moderate Christians and Muslims to combat extremism.

Familiar suspicions

Still, a more familiar Islamophobia bubbles not far beneath the surface. While Russia’s authoritarian political culture keeps it mostly bottled up for now, any survey of the country’s freewheeling social media will turn up plenty of small but clearly active groups who express the kind of militant anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, and anti-Muslim views that are familiar in the West.

“Potentially, any foreign citizen coming here is a threat,” says Valentina Bobrova, a leader of the National Conservative Movement, a small group in the central Russian city of Podolsk. “Islam … is an aggressive religion. We feel that it is attacking, trying to seize territories, minds, and souls in Russia, just as it is in Europe.”

And the story of Ilyas Nikitin, a Russian Muslim whose photograph was mistakenly circulated as a suspect in the St. Petersburg bombing, is a cautionary signal of how quickly grassroots suspicion and ill-will can erupt. Despite being cleared by police, he was subsequently forced off an airplane when terrified passengers complained, and arrived at his home in the west Siberian city of  Nizhnevartovsk to find he’d been fired from his job.

“You can’t say there is Islamophobia in Russia,” says Rais Suleymanov, an expert with the security services-linked Institute of National Strategy. “But when some act of terrorism is committed by radical Islamists, average people are quick to project all of their underlying fears onto that [Islamic] doctrine.”

Source: After St. Petersburg bombing, a notable absence: Russian anti-Islam backlash (+video) – CSMonitor.com

Russia Quietly Strips Emigres of Dual #Citizenship – Forward.com

Another example of the links between citizenship and identity, and how government changes affect the latter:

Tens of thousands of Russian dual nationals are being effectively stripped of their Russian citizenship via a quiet policy of Russian consulates worldwide refusing to renew their passports.

Under new regulations the consulates are enforcing, anyone seeking to renew a passport who was not registered as living in Russia on February 6, 1992, will be rejected, even if his or her passport had been renewed on previous occasions.

It is unclear just how many people this new policy will affect. But it will certainly apply to thousands of Jews who emigrated from Russia after July 1, 1991 — the date on which the Soviet Union, then in its final days, ended its policy of taking away the passports of Jews who left the country with exit visas to Israel. (The Soviet Union was formally dissolved on December 25, 1991.)

In Soviet times, the only way that Jews were allowed to leave the country was with their Russian passport confiscated — if they were allowed to leave at all. Many actually moved to the United States or to Europe once they got out, despite the Israeli stamp on their exit visa. But under the late Soviet policy, which was continued by the successor Russian government following the Soviet Union’s breakup, Jews could, for the first time, like others, become dual nationals. This allowed them to return freely to Russia to visit — or even move back if they changed their minds.

“I’ve always had two citizenships, two languages, two identities and two cultures. It’s who I am,” said Katya Rouzina, a 27-year-old college Russian instructor and graduate student who expects her Russian passport application will be rejected—as was this reporter’s—because she left Russia before February 1992. Like many Russian expatriates, Rouzina, who moved to the United States when she was 1-year-old, considers her continued tie to Russia a matter of identity. “They can’t just randomly say you’re not a Russian citizen anymore. That just makes me angry,” she said.

Like the United States, the Russian Federation allows for dual citizenship, though estimates of how many Russians have this status vary widely. Konstantin Romodanovsky, the director of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that between 1 million and 6 million Russians have dual citizenship.

Asked about the new policy, which was never formally announced, the Russian Embassy in Washington confirmed the change, which it said was not a matter of any new law passed by the country’s legislature. “Our laws expand, they don’t change,” embassy press secretary Yury Melnik said. “The laws are interpreted better…. An expired passport isn’t considered a valid document.”

The Russian Consulate in New York City acknowledged that in the past, Russia had issued passports to people who had been expatriate citizens of the old Soviet Union, even if they had never registered as residents and citizens of the new Russian Federation, established after the Soviet Union’s breakup. It acknowledged having renewed their passports, as well.

“The people with such passports considered themselves citizens of the Russian Federation,” the consulate wrote in its email. “While we are aware that the persons holding such passports are not to be blamed for the existing situation, we must now, nonetheless, put things in order. We cannot issue passports to those whose Russian citizenship is not properly registered.”

The consulate suggested that those caught in this situation apply for a visa to visit Russia as American citizens instead. Michael Drob, director of a new documentary, “Stateless,” which tells the story of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, said that not having a Russian passport would not only make travel to Russia more difficult, it might also prevent elderly people from receiving their Russian government pensions when they reach retirement age.

Moreover, he said, those caught up in this change, who came to America and became permanent residents but who never applied for citizenship, would now effectively be rendered stateless; so would those who came on more limited visas and stayed in America illegally.

The exact number of people who emigrated from Russia between July 1, 1991, when the Soviet-era passport confiscation policy for departing Jews ended, and February 6, 1992, could not be obtained. But it is clearly on the scale of tens of thousands.

Source: Russia Quietly Strips Emigres of Dual Citizenship – World – Forward.com

Diaspora Politics: Israel, Ukraine and Russia

More on diaspora politics and interests. I have not seen any coverage in Canadian media of tension between the US and Israel over Israel’s abstention on a UN resolution censuring Russia for its invasion of Crimea. Presumably the Canadian government would be equally annoyed as the Americans given its strong language against Russia and in favour of Ukraine. But then of course, this has to be “balanced” by the Canadian government’s strong support of Israel.

Always hard when there are such strong differences of opinion, both with respect to foreign relations as well as domestic diaspora politics.

Adding more fuel to the flames in Washington were public remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in which they maintained their “neutrality” and failed to back up the United States.

“We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians, and our experience has been very positive with both sides. So I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this,” Lieberman told Israel’s Channel 9 television when asked about the Ukraine crisis.

When White House and State Department officials read these comments, they nearly went crazy. They were particularly incensed by Lieberman’s mentioning Israel’s relations with the United States and with Russia in the same breath, giving them equal weight. The United States gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, in addition to its constant diplomatic support in the UN and other international forums. Russia, on the other hand, supplies arms to Israel’s enemies and votes against it regularly in the UN.

U.S. officials angry: Israel doesn’t back stance on Russia – Haaretz.