In Russia, what's not a 'secret'?

Sociologist is charged with treason for sharing public information with foreign professors.

A chill is creeping over Russia's academic and journalistic communities as the implications of a key treason trial launched by the security service sink in: Almost any piece of information communicated to a foreigner could land you in jail.

The case holding everyone's attention concerns Igor Sutyagin, a sociological researcher with Moscow's prestigious Institute of Canada-USA Studies, who is charged with espionage for carrying out seemingly routine academic cooperation with Canadian and British colleagues. Mr. Sutyagin, who never had access to classified information, has been held for 15 months in a special prison by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. His trial has been postponed twice.

"There is a new concept being deployed by our authorities here, which is that an analyst can 'create secrets' even by working with non-secret materials," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a leading Russian political analyst who says he has been interviewed by the FSB because he once attended a conference with Sutyagin. "We are all holding our breath to see if this holds up in court. If it does, we may all find ourselves guilty of 'creating' secrets at any time, at the whim of the FSB."

A wave of treason trials, orchestrated by the FSB, has deeply alarmed journalists, academics, and environmentalists, whose interests overlap military and national security fields. In December, an American businessman, Edmund Pope, was sentenced to 20 years at hard labor by a Russian court for trying to purchase documents that were declared secret only after his arrest. Mr. Pope was pardoned by President Vladimir Putin. A prominent environmentalist, Grigory Pasko, successfully defended himself against charges of leaking information about the Russian Navy's dumping of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean, only to find himself facing a fresh trial on the same charges late last year.

President Putin apparently approves. A former KGB agent, he told prosecutors at a Kremlin ceremony in their honor last month, to "preserve the valuable aspects that have always been present in the work of the security organs of our country."

One reason Sutyagin's case resonates is because of its apparent routine feel. He was arrested after he took part in a Canadian government-funded survey of military-civil relations in Russia and 11 other post-Communist countries, in collaboration with professors from Canada's Carleton and York universities. No problems have arisen in any of the other countries involved in the study. He is also accused of producing a digest of military-related articles from the Russian press for a British company.

Sutyagin's lawyer, Vladimir Vasiltsov, says the FSB's complaint against his client is that he analyzed the data he gathered from open sources. "You can read all you want, but don't you dare compare and analyze this information, because that can create a state secret," he says.

Pavel Podvig, an analyst with the independent Center of Arms Control Studies in Moscow and presently a visiting scholar at Princeton University, is also under investigation for a book he edited in 1998 on Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal. Sutyagin was one of the co-authors. "I do feel worried," Mr. Podvig says. "In Russia's current political climate, it is almost impossible to explain why independent, nongovernmental military expertise is good for the country. The idea of academic freedom is kind of alien in Russia. The understanding of secrecy is at a stone-age level, even among educated people."

Analysts say the trials are a coordinated attempt by the FSB to slam the lid back on, following a decade in which almost no legal controls or national-security regulations inhibited scrutiny of military affairs. "The state is trying to impose limits, because there have been none," says Andrei Kalachinsky, chairman of the Vladivostok branch of the Nuclear Safety Organization, an independent, Moscow-based environmental group. He says several environmentalists who looked into local nuclear contamination have been arrested over the past year in Vladivostok, home of Russia's Pacific Fleet, and charged with breaching military secrecy. "After the Soviet Union collapsed, environmentalists thought everything should be open and talked about. There was complete chaos. Now the state is telling us, through these trials, that nothing should be talked about. Lines are being drawn."

Pavel Felgenhauer, a journalist who writes on military affairs, says he has refused job offers from Western publications, such as the prestigious Jane's Defense Weekly in London, because of the new atmosphere. "It's too close to intelligence gathering - like what Sutyagin was doing," he says. "I prefer analysis, and [foreign publications] are very interested in technical aspects." Much of the Russian media, he says, "are already practicing self-censorship."

While some warn that Soviet-style controls on academic and journalistic freedom are in the offing, others say the FSB campaign is doomed to fizzle because it blocks the country's social and economic development. The FSB has strengthened since Putin came to power, says Gennady Kochetkov, a military expert at the Institute of Canada-USA Studies. "This has activated their recent attempts to turn the clock back.

"Sutyagin's case illustrates the need to establish the right of society to exercise controls over the activities of the state," he says. "Our top political leaders must understand this. There is too much at stake for Russia's development to let the relics of the past stand in the way of information exchange with foreign countries."

But some fear the campaign could develop popular momentum. "The most worrying sign is that the society seems to support the FSB in this effort," says Mr. Podvig. Finding "spies" all around makes Russians feel like they are a superpower again, worth spying on, he says. "This, in turn, makes the FSB more aggressive."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In Russia, what's not a 'secret'?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today