Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 217

In signing the Charter for European Security at last week’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul, Russia committed itself to observing that organization’s efforts to strengthen respect for human rights by OSCE member governments. The most obvious example of a clear disjuncture between the OSCE’s human rights standards and the behavior of the Russian government lies–as evident before, during and since the summit–in the Kremlin’s prosecution of its brutal military crackdown in Chechnya. But the seeming failure of the Russian government to live up to its international human rights commitments has been increasingly evident in at least one other area as well: the efforts of Russian security services to intimidate and even imprison those researchers investigating the environmental dangers posed by the Russian navy’s handling and disposal of its nuclear waste.

Two cases of this sort have already drawn the attention of international human rights groups such as Amnesty International. That of Aleksandr Nikitin, a retired Soviet navy captain, is perhaps the best known. Nikitin was arrested in 1996 for his work on a study published by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. It described the hazards posed by the Russian Northern Fleet’s nuclear waste storage practices. Nikitin was jailed for nearly a year, and his case is still far from being fully resolved.

And then there is Russian naval journalist Grigory Pasko. He was arrested in 1997 for his investigations into the Russian Pacific Fleet’s handling of nuclear wastes. Like Nikitin, Pasko had a foreign connection–he had done some work for Japanese media–and, like Nikitin, he was charged with treason for allegedly passing classified information to foreign handlers. This past July Pasko won a partial legal victory. He has since launched a risky appeal in an effort to win full exoneration.

In prosecuting both Nikitin and Pasko, Russia’s Federal Security Service has come up with little to substantiate the treason charges. But that has not stopped it from prolonging the cases and forcing the two men to endure long prison terms. Human rights defenders in Russia have charged that Russian authorities are using the cases not only to punish Nikitin and Pasko for working on such sensitive matters with foreign partners, but also to intimidate other researchers engaged in similar pursuits. On July 3 federal agents seized the documents of another Russian researcher in this area–a well-known scientist named Vladimir Soifer. He is apparently also under suspicion of passing secrets to foreigners (see the Monitor, October 29).

In yet a further indication of the federal authorities’ determination to limit cooperation between Russian and Western nuclear researchers, a department director at the prestigious U.S.A. and Canada Institute was reportedly charged on November 5 with treason–on suspicion of having spied for the United States. Few details are available, but Igor Sutyagin, who was originally arrested on October 27, is believed to be under suspicion of having passed classified information to the American nuclear security expert Joshua Handler. A PhD student from Princeton who has published extensively on nuclear security issues and who also had connections with the USA and Canada Institute, Handler is currently in the United States. But his apartment in Moscow was searched by federal agents on October 27–the day of Sutyagin’s arrest–and a computer and documents were seized.

In another action which might have been connected to Sutyagin’s arrest, federal agents recently searched the office of Paul Podvig, editor of a book on Russia’s nuclear forces, and seized 500-600 copies of the book, to which Sutyagin had contributed a chapter (AFP, November 11, 20; Washington Post, AP, November 18).

Responding to a charge that the Russian secret services are attempting to intimidate those doing research in the area of nuclear weapons and the environment, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service claimed that U.S. intelligence has frequently tried to collect sensitive information under the cover of environmental studies. “Very often,” he said, “ecologists do not even suspect they are being used, but sometimes there are exceptions” (Trud-7, November 4). A Western newspaper reported late last month that Russian security agencies are now arresting or questioning growing numbers of environmentalists, some in connection with the campaign against “terrorism” (Globe and Mail, October 27).

The apparent attempt by federal authorities to chill cooperation between Russian and Western nuclear researchers would seem to be part of the broader political resurgence of hardline groups in Moscow. The Cold War style effort is being spearheaded by the Federal Security Service, Russia’s chief counterintelligence agency and the main successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB. Not surprisingly, perhaps, that is the organization in which current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made his career. Prior to being appointed to his current post, Putin was director of the Federal Security Service.