Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 77

In what many will describe as a landmark victory for the rule of law in Russia, a retired Russian naval captain emerged victorious yesterday from a four-year battle with the country’s powerful Federal Security Service (FSB). Aleksandr Nikitin, a naval engineer and researcher, was acquitted yesterday by the Russian Supreme Court on charges of espionage and divulging state secrets. Nikitin had first been arrested in 1996 for his participation in a study by a Norwegian environmental group–Bellona–which outlined the dangers posed by the Russian Northern Fleet’s handling of nuclear waste materials. Nikitin spent some ten months in jail following his arrest, during which time his cause was embraced by a host of international human rights organizations. As the case wound its way through the Russian judicial system over the next four years, Nikitin’s treatment by the authorities came increasingly to be seen as a test of post-Soviet Russia’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In that same context, Nikitin’s case also came to be seen as an indicator of the role which would have been played in post-Soviet Russia by the FSB, Russia’s domestic counterintelligence agency and the main successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB.

That last element of the Nikitin case has come to assume special importance since Vladimir Putin’s appointment as Russian prime minister last August and his subsequent rise to the pinnacle of political power in Russia. Putin served as FSB director from July of 1998 until his August appointment as premier, and thus oversaw the agency’s activities during a portion of the period during which the FSB pursued and attempted to intimidate Nikitin. It was during this same period, moreover, that the FSB, and the intelligence community as a whole, appeared to enjoy a resurgence of political influence.

That trend has only intensified since Putin was named acting president at the start of this year, and is one of the reasons for concern among Russian and international human rights groups that Russian citizens could face new threats to their liberties. Indeed, there have been a series of other arrests and investigations over the past year involving researchers–both Russian and foreign-born–who are studying the environmental legacy of the former Soviet defense industrial complex. The investigations by Russian authorities appear expressly designed both to impede studies of this sort and to chill cooperation between Russian and foreign experts in this area.

Russian researchers have nevertheless won several important legal victories. In July of last year Captain Grigory Pasko, a crusading military journalist who had made a reputation by reporting on the Russian Pacific Fleet’s handling of its liquid nuclear wastes, was acquitted of treason and espionage charges (although not of some lesser charges). Then, in December, Nikitin himself was acquitted of the same charges by a municipal court in St. Petersburg. Prosecutors appealed the decision to the Criminal Collegium of the Supreme Court, however, which set the stage for Nikitin’s triumph yesterday.

In yesterday’s ruling, the court ruled in favor of Nikitin’s chief defense lawyer, Yury Schmidt, who had argued that the laws under which Nikitin was charged had been applied retroactively. The court also ruled that prosecutors had failed to present a list of state secrets that Nikitin had allegedly revealed in his contribution to the 1995 Bellona report. Nikitin, who had faced a possible twelve-year jail sentence, hailed his victory yesterday as a triumph of the rule of law in Russia. He also said that he would continue to pursue his research into environmental problems (AP, UPI, Itar-Tass, April 17).

While the legal victories for Nikitin and, earlier, for Pasko, were certainly triumphs for the individuals involved, it may be a stretch to suggest that they represent a more comprehensive victory for the rule of law or for human rights in Russia. That is because the legal victories can not cancel out the years of suffering unjustly endured by the two men. Aside from his ten-month jail sentence, for example, Nikitin spent a long period of time under house arrest and reportedly faced intimidation by security service agents even while free. Ultimately, concerns about the safety of his family led him to send them to Canada. Pasko may have endured even greater personal suffering. He spent much of his year-and-a-half imprisonment in solitary confinement, and his health reportedly degenerated as a result of the dismal conditions that are prevalent throughout much of Russia’s prison system. Those lessons have undoubtedly not been lost on other Russian and foreign-born researchers of Russia’s vast defense industrial complex. The FSB may not have won its cases, but it proved capable of visiting enormous and prolonged privations on two nuclear whistle-blowers. Yesterday’s court decision in no way indicates that it cannot do the same thing to others.