Saturday, June 26, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Changes in Russia Would Make Repetition of Nikitin’s Exoneration Unlikely, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 26 – Ten years after Aleksandr Nikitin was acquitted on FSB charges of spying for providing open source information for a Bellona report on radioactive hazards in Russia’s nuclear fleet, participants at an Oslo conference have concluded that despite his obvious innocence, the former naval officer would be unlikely to obtain justice in Russia now.
But despite what many participants in the meeting said was an “irretrievable rollback in Russia’s democratic reforms” in the intervening decade, some said that Russian and international organizations must continue the fight, demanding that Moscow change course and live up to its Constitution and commitments (
Nikitin was charged with treason and espionage in 1995 for providing a chapter to a Bellona report on “The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination.” But with the help of Bellona, Norwegian and Russian legal experts, he was acquitted in 2000, “the single figure in Soviet or Russian history to have taken on the secret services and won.”
At this month’s Oslo conference, however, Bellona reports that “Nikitin’s own lawyer said that today’s political climate would condemn him to life in prison,” while others disagreed and said “the letter of the law in Russia remains such that he would have to be found innocent,” although he they said there was now “absolutely no guarantee” of an acquittal.
One of the co-authors of the original Bellona report, who himself was forced to “flee Russia in the wake of Nikitin’s arrest,” told the meeting that “’the irony is that the report was useful for everyone’ who would help Russia in cleaning up its cold war legacy.” But Bellona President Frederic Haugue noted that “somebody didn’t like this.”
“That somebody was the FSB,” and its leaders felt that it had to “catch spies” in order to “justify its continued existence, Russian human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt told the meeting in a recorded message. “And what better ‘spy’ than a retired and soft-spoken naval captain,” like Nikitin?
When Bellona decided to fight the charges, “no one expected an acquittal,” officials of the organization said. But they were convinced that “they could at least force Russia to fight fairly, which ironically meant a fight on its own terms.” That is what they did, and yet “the verdict surprised everyone.”
“What we proved,” Bellona’s President Haugue said, “is that it is possible to fight the FSB and win. Because of Nikitin, we dared to fight, and this became an inspiration for others.” Moreover, the Nikitin case helped boost Bellona’s own standing, allowing it to open offices in St. Petersburg and Murmansk as well as in the United States.
That allowed Bellona to shine a bright light on “the shoddy nuclear waste storage practices at Andreyeva Bay” and to attract Russian and international attention to them. As a result, the situation there and elsewhere in the Russian North has been “radically improved,” Bellona experts said, but “much remains to be done.”
As far as the future is concerned, Schmidt said that with the rise of Vladimir Putin, the situation of NGOs and environmental activists has become worse. “Of the 500 NGOs in Moscow as of 2005, only 100 remain,” and “not even the Helsinki Commission can get visas to go to a country in which [its representatives] once worked openly.”
Nikitin’s acquittal was a great achievement, Schmidt said, but “I do not congratulate our country because if the 1990s were the years of the road to democracy, then the beginning of the 21st century marked the beginning of the movement backward,” something he said that was likely to get even worse when, as he expects, Putin returns to the presidency.
A somewhat different evaluation of the situation in Russia was offered by Boris Pustyntsev of the St. Petersburg Citizens Watch group. He said he was not as pessimistic, given that “under Soviet rule, finding ways to beat the system was ‘a national sport,’” something Russians have not forgotten and now have more chances to employ.
People expected too much in the 1990s, he said, but the recent retrenchment is perhaps a “natural” correction, although he acknowledged that “there are no guarantees and the current situation could continue to get worse.” But it could become disastrous only if Russia “completely reversed the clock by ‘shutting itself off from the rest of the world.’”
The situation with regard to the environment, however, has deteriorated radically, according to Aleksey Yablokov, one of Russia’s leader environmentalists and a former advisor to Boris Yeltsin. Not only has dumping of all kinds of waste, including nuclear, increased, but the state budget for environmental protection has fallen sharply.
Nikitin, the man at the center of the case a decade ago, was among the pessimists. “There is no civil society in Russia today,” he said, adding that he has “little optimism” about the future. Had his own case been brought only six months later, he believes that he would have been sentenced as Igor Sutyagin was to 15 years in prison.
“Our expectations that Russia would proceed along the path of democracy and respect for human rights have not been proved out,” Nikitin continued. There are now 75 political prisoners in Russia, an indication he said that the answer to the question “what has changed in Russia?” is “nothing” (
But despite that, Bellona President Haugue said those who believe in human rights and environmental protection “must continue the fight.” And they must do so even when, as was the case a decade ago, Western governments told them not to. “The best advice I got then,” he said,” was to pursue another option – to slam our fist on the table until we got to talk to the KGB.”

Personal Note: When Nikitin spoke at the Washington offices of RFE/RL after his acquittal, he told the author of these lines that it was incorrect to call Valdimir Putin “an ex-KGB officer.” “There are no ex-KGB officers,” Nikitin insisted at the time, “just as there are no ex-German shepherds.”

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