When the Russian authorities came for anti-Kremlin activist Alexei Vetrov he says he thought he knew where to go: Ukraine.
The country had just seen its Moscow-backed leader ousted by mass protests and plunged into a standoff with Russia as it pivoted sharply towards the West.
But now — almost three years after moving — Vetrov remains trapped in a legal black hole by a Soviet-style bureaucracy all too reminiscent of the one he thought he had left behind in Russia.
“I was hoping that at least in this country I would escape the criminal absurdity and begin to build democracy, but I never got the chance,” the 37-year-old told AFP.
He is among 400 Russian journalists and entrepreneurs who have beat a path to Ukraine since 2014, after publicly accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of breaching their basic rights.
Vetrov alleged that corrupt officials in his town shut down his mobile phone business and wanted to arrest him in revenge for organising anti-Putin rallies.
Once in Ukraine he filed the papers needed to seek political asylum. To his horror, migration officials rejected his application and courts upheld that decision.
“A migration service representative said in court that Russia was a democratic state and that any pressure on the opposition could not occur there,” Vetrov said with a sarcastic smile.
He has now ended up without any Ukrainian documents — or even a work permit — and says he even fears he might be returned to Russia, although the chances of the two feuding neighbours cooperating is slim.
“If they demand my extradition to Russia, the Ukrainian authorities could carry it out,” he said.
– Broken promises? -Vetrov’s dashed hopes chime with a broader sense of disappointment felt by many in Ukraine. They say the authorities have failed to make good on pledges to tackle corruption or reform a creaking system.
Faced with a crippling conflict in the east against Russian-backed rebels Kiev has been criticised for making promises that could not be kept.
In April 2015 President Petro Poroshenko vowed to ease strict rules for obtaining citizenship and even granted it to a handful of Russians who were likely being harassed for their political views.
But he stopped short of bringing his commitment to life.
Over the past two years only 15 Russians have been granted political asylum in Ukraine — while scores were refused.
The migration service insists it weighs every application individually and acts in full accordance to the UN convention on refugees.
“We conduct all necessary checks, including for the Russians,” migration service’s spokesman Sergiy Gunko told AFP.
But the refusals have left the asylum seekers in limbo, while immigration activists scratching their heads.
– ‘No guarantee of protection’ -Before fleeing Russia, Pavel Shekhtman faced up to five years in prison for a social network post made in support of Ukraine — but he was also turned down.
“The Ukrainian migration service determined that I was not persecuted in Russia for political reasons,” the 49-year-old told AFP.
The Russian citizens, as well as human rights groups, think that despite their opposition to the Kremlin, Ukraine may still view them as potential spies.
They also blame the failure to cut red tape in the former Soviet republic’s top-heavy migration service.
Maksym Butkevych of “No Borders”, an organisation that helps asylum seekers, called many rejections “inexplicable” and said the number of cases approved in Ukraine was “much smaller” than neighbouring countries such as Poland, Slovakia or Hungary.
He lamented that officials may stick to an earlier decision to refuse an applicant even if a court confirms that they have a right to asylum, leaving a bleak reality.
“There is no guarantee of getting protection in Ukraine,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse