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Published: Tuesday January 14, 2014 MYT 9:15:02 PM
Updated: Tuesday January 14, 2014 MYT 9:15:59 PM

Russia expels U.S. journalist critical of Putin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has barred a U.S. journalist who is critical of President Vladimir Putin for five years, a move that could upset relations with the United States and has echoes of the Cold War.

Moscow's treatment of David Satter could fuel concern about freedom of speech before the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, although Putin has tried to appease critics by freeing former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the Pussy Riot protest group in the run-up to the Games.

The Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Satter, author of three books on Russia and the Soviet Union, had been prevented from returning to Russia last month after grossly violating visa regulations.

"As some of you know, I've been expelled from Russia," Satter wrote on Twitter.

Dismissing the Foreign Ministry's version of events, he said: "It's the first explanation for my expulsion which anyone has received in nearly three weeks. It is also false."

Such expulsions have been rare since the end of the Cold War and collapse of the communist Soviet Union in 1991. But the ministry dismissed suggestions by Western media that the move against Satter was politically motivated as "tendentious".

A former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, Satter was back in the Russian capital last year and advising Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a broadcaster funded by the U.S. government.

In one of his books, "Darkness at Dawn", Satter accused the Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor of the Soviet-era KGB, of being responsible for bombings of Russian apartment buildings in 1999 which killed more than 300 people.

The FSB, which was headed by Putin before he became prime minister and then president, has denied the charge. Russian authorities blamed the attacks on separatists from Chechnya in the volatile North Caucasus. The crimes were never solved.

VISA REGULATIONS VIOLATED

The Foreign Ministry, which handles media accreditation for foreign journalists, said Satter had failed to report to the federal migration service as required when he last arrived in Russia on November 21.

"In fact, from November 22 to November 26 this U.S. citizen stayed on Russian territory illegally," the ministry said, and a Moscow court had ruled on November 29 that he should be expelled. A court spokeswoman confirmed the ruling.

The ministry said Satter had left Russia on December 4 and was refused a visa when he wanted to return. He was just one of about 500,000 foreigners barred from Russia for periods of three to 10 years for breaking the law, the ministry added.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said the U.S. embassy in Moscow had sought an explanation from the Russian authorities, but without success. It quoted Satter as saying he had been told by a Russian embassy official in the Ukrainian capital Kiev that his presence was considered "undesirable".

Relations between Moscow and Washington improved during U.S. President Barack Obama's first-term push to "reset" ties.

But they have deteriorated again amid disputes on Iran, Syria, human rights and Russia's decision to give temporary asylum to American fugitive spy contractor Edward Snowden.

Russia expelled a U.S. diplomat in Moscow last year, accusing him of working as a spy and trying to recruit a Russian agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Public announcements of such expulsions have become rare since the end of the Cold War.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin)

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