Russians Turn to US for Asylum

Some flee persecution, but a growing number are disillusioned by chaos back home

WHEN thousands of Russians defied Communist hard-liners' tanks and soldiers at the Russian White House in August 1991, Alexandra Sviridova was there, risking her life to rally for a new, democratic Russia.

Three years later, she is so disillusioned with the way the new Russia has turned out that she is requesting political asylum in the United States, maintaining that her life would be in danger were she to return home.

``Many Americans say to me `you are a traitor, go to your country and Yeltsin. Go back and build your country,' '' says Ms. Sviridova, a former investigative television reporter and filmmaker now working in New York City as a house cleaner. ``In 1991-92 there was at least an illusion that we could change something - now I have no such illusions.''

``Here in America, there is structure; in Russia's it's a jungle,'' she says.

Ironically, Russians who once sought asylum because of the oppressive Soviet government now often say that the absence of societal control by Russia's democratic government has made it impossible for them to live there. And since the fall of the Soviet Union, a modest but growing number of Russians has successfully used such fears to gain political-asylum status once they are already in the US on work or tourist visas.

``Nine times out of 10 they say `I'm a minority and I'm being persecuted by right-wing nationalists,' '' says Larry Golub, an official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) refugee center in Newark, N.J.

Most Russians seeking political asylum are Jews, but others also claim that they cannot live in Russia because of their religion, political outlook, or other associations, immigration officials say.

Claims of persecution are quickly dismissed by the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. ``We don't see any grounds for any democratic-minded people to seek asylum in the United States,'' says spokesman Vladimir Derbenov. ``According to the Russian Constitution, all minorities have equal rights.''

``Are they Communists being persecuted by the democrats?'' he asked in jest.

Despite official Russian skepticism, evidence of persecution has won 413 Russian individuals or families asylum status in the year ending September 1994, up steadily from 184 in fiscal 1993 and 37 in 1992, according to Christine Davidson, a senior policy analyst in the INS's asylum division in Washington.

Few of those who apply are quickly rejected. Over the past fiscal year, Sviridova and 2,240 other Russian individuals or families have sought political asylum in the US; only 233 were rejected. The others are likely to see their cases drag on for years, a delay that gives them the right to live and work in the US until their appeals are completed, officials say.

Richard Kenney, an INS spokesman, says that these temporary rights prompt some foreigners to file for political asylum even when they have no legitimate case. ``We definitely have a problem with asylum abuse,'' he says. Indeed, some Russians privately acknowledge that they will do whatever it takes to get a US green card, including exaggerate anti-Semitism or other persecution.

To speed the hearing process for political-asylum claims, the INS will open a new refugee office in New York City next month, removing some of the pressure from the overworked area facility in Newark, N.J.

Sviridova, who was originally invited to the US to lecture at Duke University in June 1993, says she fears returning because her investigative work - previously aired on the television program ``Top Secret'' - could endanger her life.

She is quick to name several Russian reporters killed over the past year or two, including one newspaperman whose briefcase was booby-trapped in October as he was investigating high-level military corruption.

``I don't think there is repression - I know it,'' says Sviridova, who has taken to casual American dress of sneakers, jeans, and a sweater. ``I mean for bankers, journalists, and those who swim against the current.''

She says she was already threatened several times by anonymous callers complaining about her broadcasts before she left last year. Now she believes her next report could be her last. ``If I did what I have always done and uncovered Mafia activities, then the next bullet will be mine,'' she says.

FOUR Russian journalists have been killed this year under murky circumstances, according to Leonid Zagalsky, European program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. There is certainly danger, he says, ``if you're an investigative reporter investigating things such as the Mafia and corruption in the military.''

In fiscal 1994, 43,470 citizens of the former Soviet Union were granted refugee status to immigrate to the United States, according to the Washington Processing Center, a joint body of the State Department and the INS.

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