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Putin Meeting Will Test Biden's Vow To Prioritize Human Rights


President Biden has vowed to make human rights a central part of his foreign policy. A key test comes next week when he sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The U.S. has been raising concerns about Russia's crackdown on opposition leader Alexei Navalny. And the crackdown is sweeping up average Russians, too, as we hear from NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In 1985, a well-known Soviet actor escaped Yugoslavia in the trunk of a car and then defected to the United States.


OLEG VIDOV: I wanted to escape. I had to find a way.

KELEMEN: The late Oleg Vidov's life is the subject of a new documentary, and a Russian man and his wife who worked on that film have become political refugees themselves.

NIKOLAI KAZANSTEV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "Unfortunately, my story is less dramatic," says Nikolai Kazanstev - "not a Hollywood blockbuster." But Kazanstev did flee to Los Angeles last December, along with his wife, a TV producer and their young daughter. He's not a big name, activist or politician. Kazanstev ran an internet marketing business and simply took part in rallies for internet freedom and disability rights.

KAZANSTEV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "And I would have kept up that fight, taking the risk of being jailed again," he tells me over Zoom, if he didn't have a child to worry about. Now he's seeking political asylum in the U.S., recounting one time he was beaten in police custody in Moscow and kept 36 hours with no sleep, food or contact with his family just for taking part in a rally.

KAZANSTEV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "After I left," he says, "things got worse." Authorities began harassing his mother, who lives in the provincial city of Tomsk. To protect her, he shut down a website where he had blogged about his brutal treatment. The Atlantic Council's Ariel Cohen says Kazanstev's story is not so unusual.

ARIEL COHEN: Whatever you do can be turned against you even if you are an innocent bystander, even if you took out your phone and took some pictures, even if you are worried about protection of very basic rights that are in the Russian constitution.

KELEMEN: Cohen compared the situation to the Brezhnev era, when his family left the Soviet Union.

COHEN: Increasingly, you see less and less checks and balances on the security services. The courts are out of control. And the Russian constitution, unfortunately, has become a joke.

KELEMEN: This week, a Russian court labeled as extremists three organizations linked to the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny. The State Department says the move puts thousands of Navalny supporters at risk of criminal prosecution. But the U.S. is worried about more than human rights in Russia. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says President Biden has a long list of concerns to raise in next week's summit.


JAKE SULLIVAN: Joe Biden is not meeting with Vladimir Putin despite our country's differences. He's meeting with him because of our country's differences. There is simply a lot we have to work through.

KELEMEN: Nuclear weapons and Russian hackers may top the agenda, says Ariel Cohen. But he says the U.S. needs to stand up for democracy activists, who he says are fleeing as Russia becomes more authoritarian.

COHEN: What Russia is doing, it's destroying its future. It's forcing people like Kazanstev and many others to leave the country. And in the end of the day, they're shooting themselves in both feet and in the head.

KELEMEN: U.S. immigration authorities say they're not yet seeing any uptick in asylum cases from Russia and wouldn't comment on Kazanstev case. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.