Secrecy Shrouds Russia Again, Rolling Back Gains of Glasnost
From the bowels of the President Hotel, once reserved for the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, a shadowy team of operatives works behind doors guarded by armed men.Skip to next paragraph
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They are led by a former KGB general who has taken a key role in President Boris Yeltsin's bid for reelection, according to officials familiar with his campaign.
Gen. Georgy Rogozin, deputy head of the Kremlin's security service, stays out of the limelight. But his presence at the nerve center of Yeltsin's campaign symbolizes a tightening cloak of secrecy around Russian government affairs that critics say is threatening many of the democratic victories won by glasnost, the Soviet policy of openness.
The cloak is being woven by presidential decrees, governmental regulations, and legislation that have surreptitiously screened off wide areas of official life from public view over the past few months.
The trend is all the more striking after the unprecedented freedoms that marked the Soviet collapse in December 1991, when officials and journalists delighted in shattering the silence that had dominated much of Soviet life for decades.
Their actions sparked hope that Russia was developing into an open society along more Western lines. But recent developments cast doubt on such hopes, clawing previously public information back into the classified zone.
At the heart of this trend is a little-noticed edict, No. 1203, signed by President Yeltsin on Nov. 30 last year. It sets out "a list of information classified as state secrets." Its 87 clauses cover such expected areas as military production and security-service operations. But they also extend to issues that would be considered legitimate public concerns in many countries, such as the design of nuclear-power stations.
The edict also elevates apparently innocuous information to the level of "state secret." For example, the "volume of import and export freight shipped between the Russian Federation and CIS states," the independent nations that emerged from the Soviet Union, is now secret and may not be published.
'Slightly against the law'
Among the ministries and government agencies listed as responsible for keeping state secrets is the Environment Ministry, despite a 1993 law on secrecy that specifically prohibits the government from classifying any information regarding public health or the environment.
"The presidential decree goes slightly against the law, but nobody questions this, nobody wants to go to battle," complains Alexei Yablokov, chairman of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, who also works as an adviser to Yeltsin's Security Council.
Other recent government ordinances illustrate the tendency toward shielding information. On March 15, Nikolai Yegorov, Yeltsin's chief of staff, issued a regulation that henceforth no Security Council staffer may talk to a journalist without prior approval from his boss.
And on Feb. 8, a resolution signed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that the new secrecy regime covers even information that had previously been in the public domain.
"It is forbidden to reproduce previously published data on the position of triangulation points and geographical landmarks" if any government agency decides they should be secret, the resolution said.
And to judge by another peculiar order from Mr. Chernomyrdin, secretiveness about Russia's topography and resources may have reached the point of deliberately misleading foreign investors.
Hard-to-find gold mines
An order released on March 23 this year decreed that all topographical and cartographical information given to potential investors in gold and silver mines in the far eastern region of Magadan should be based on 1963 data.
Geographical data prepared 30 years ago by the Soviet authorities, at the height of the cold war, was routinely distorted in order to deceive outsiders, officials have since acknowledged.
Even the past is not immune from the gathering mood of concealment, as American scholars working in Russian historical archives have found.