Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 201

News agencies reported yesterday that Russian security agents had searched the Moscow apartment of Joshua Handler, an American Ph.D. student from Princeton University doing research work on Russian nuclear waste storage facilities. The agents reportedly confiscated notebooks and a computer belonging to Handler. Handler was reportedly invited to Russia by the United States and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and had been collecting materials about environmental problems posed by the Russian navy’s handling of nuclear materials. His dissertation reportedly deals with the question of how nongovernmental groups like Greenpeace can force governments to deal constructively with such issues (AP, Russian agencies, October 28).

The seizure of Handler’s research materials appears to be yet another incident reflecting a mounting campaign by Russian security services aimed at intimidating or otherwise halting researchers who are investigating the hazards posed by the Soviet military’s nuclear legacy. That campaign was first highlighted for Western observers in 1996 when agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service–the chief successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB–arrested Aleksandr Nikitin. The retired navy officer was one of several authors of a study published by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona on the hazards posed by the Russian Northern Fleet’s nuclear waste disposal practices. Nikitin was jailed for nearly a year and remains under the shadow of treason charges. His cause has been embraced by international human rights groups around the world, and Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience (see the Monitor, February 5; Prism, July 16).

Despite the controversy stirred up by the Nikitin case, other arrests of a similar sort have followed. A Russian navy journalist named Grigory Pasko was detained by authorities in 1997 for his own investigations–in this case into the Russian Pacific Fleet’s disposal of liquid nuclear wastes. After a long stay in prison which reportedly did significant harm to his health, Pasko won a partial legal victory this past July (see the Monitor, July 21). However, the failure of the court to completely exonerate him–he was convicted on a pair of lesser charges–led Pasko to appeal the court’s decision. He is now awaiting the start of a new trial.

According to many Russian observers, Pasko’s partial acquittal was likely a factor in the next high-profile legal case involving a nuclear researcher. On July 3 Federal Security Service agents seized documents and letters belonging to Vladimir Soifer, a well-known 69-year-old scientist who had been researching the Pacific Fleet’s nuclear dumping practices. Soifer, it is worth noting, had contacts with Western environmental organizations and also has a brother–a biophysicist–who has lived in the United States since the 1970s and is a consultant to financier George Soros. Although under suspicion for passing secret documents to foreign citizens, Soifer has apparently not yet been arrested (see the Monitor, July 16). Russian observers nevertheless suggested that the move against him by Russian authorities had been intended to intimidate nuclear researchers anew in the wake of Pasko’s partial legal victory.

Indeed, a news analysis piece published by Canada’s Globe and Mail on October 27 said that Russian security agencies are now arresting or interrogating growing numbers of environmentalists, some as part of the Kremlin’s recently launched campaign against terrorism. The security agencies are reportedly seeking in particular information about the environmentalists’ connections with Western organizations and the sources of their funding. Vladimir Slivyak, a Canadian antinuclear activist who was detained and questioned last month, said that the authorities had “wanted to pretend [that the arrest] had something to do with terrorism.” He also said that the authorities had threatened to plant marijuana on him and said that he could face a three-year jail term on a drug possession charge.

Meanwhile, in Moscow yesterday the director of the Russia and U.S.A. Institute, Aleksei Yablokov, denied that Handler had done anything wrong and protested the search of his apartment by security agents. Yablokov also characterized the search as part of a pattern of harassment against environmental researchers in Russia: “Instead of efficiently fighting terrorism, fascism, corruption and other crimes… the security services are spending their time and money on the struggle against environmentalists and pacifists.” He called on federal authorities to rein in the Federal Security Service’s harassment of environmental researchers (AP, Russian agencies, October 28).

That is a request unlikely to be embraced by the government. Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister, is a career security agent who served prior to his most recent appointment as head of the Federal Security Service.