Norwegian AMEC co-chair expelled from Russia

frontpageingressimage_AMEC-X.jpg Photo: Bellona

Kroken spoke with Bellona Web Thursday morning from Copenhagen – the first Scandinavian destination Russian officials could book her to, she said. She is due to return to Norway on Thursday afternoon.

Kroken – who in contradiction to Russian reports that she was traveling as part of a delegation – received no comment form Russian border security officials as why she was being expelled. She had expected to stay in Russia until next Tuesday.

“They offered me no explanation about why I was not allowed to enter the country,” she said.

“My visa and passport were in order,” she said. “It all seems connected to my job with the (Norwegian) Ministry of Defense” which oversees AMEC work.

Commodore Jo Gade, who heads AMEC operations in Norway, however, was reluctant to assign motives to the expulsion of Kroken – who has traveled to Russia more than 50 times on AMEC business – and he said the incident was a matter for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to sort out with its counterpart in Russian.

“At present we can only speculate about why she was not allowed into the country,” said Gade in a telephone interview Thursday. “All we can do is wait” for an explanation from Russian officials.

He did, however, describe the circumstances as “surprising for us” in comments to the Norwegian daily Aftenposten.

Geir Hoenneland, research director at Oslo’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute, said in a telephone interview Thursday that Kroken’s expulsion from Russia was “surprising” but speculated that it “was not by chance.”

“These foreign (environmental and nuclear) projects in Russia have been unpopular for years,” said Hoenneland. “Environmental organizations are seen as biased and nuclear remediation activities are seen as efforts to collect secret information – someone wants to send a message (with Kroken’s expulsion).”

What that message is, precisely, and why it is coming now, is something that has analysts and Norwegian officlals puzzled, especially since Norway as a whole has some Euro 160m tied up in enviromental reclaimation projects in Russia.

Yet, the Russian administration has a history of hostility toward environmental and human rights causes, especially when these causes intersect with the military. The stakes for such groups and inter-governmental contacts were ratcheted up by the passage of Vladimir Putin’s law on NGOs, which strictly curtails foreign funding and gives the government wide berth to close down organizations that it can vaguely characterize as threats to national security.

In expelling Kroken, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered only a vague statement that it was not aware that an official delegation was arriving – which would hardly seem grounds to declare her persona non grata.

Kroken’s case is especially interesting because of the myserious circumstances surrounding her expulsion and her high profile in millitary circles. In such scenarios, the Kremlin usually offers up boilerplate accusations of espionage. The foggy explaination offered by the Ministry of Foreign affairs for turning Kroken away hardly seem grounds to declare her persona non grata.

Gade said in his interview with Bellona Web that it was as yet unclear whether Kroken’s persona no grata status was permanent or temporary, but said that whatever the case “it will influence her further observational trips,” several of which had already been planned before her expulsion from Russia Wednesday.

According to Kroken and Gade, Kroken was scheduled to attend meetings in Moscow with defense officials to assess the progress of AMEC – a four country military environmental clean consortium comprised of Norway, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom – over its 10-year engagement in military to military nuclear remediation projects in Northwest Russia.

“It was an evaluation trip to assess lessons learned,” Gade said.

Gade added that the current ambiguity surrounding Kroken’s status in Russia will not affect the nuclear remediation work being performed there by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign affairs, which to a certain degree has crowded AMEC out of nuclear work in Russia.

Speaking by telephone, Robert Kvile, deputy general director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, agreed with Gade, saying “I don’t think this (incident) will have any relation to our work.”

The unraveling of AMEC
Since its establishment in 1996, AMEC’s main focus has been the dismantlement of Russian nuclear submarines and safe storage of the resultant radioactive waste left behind by US and other foreign nuclear remediation efforts.

For this reason, AMEC was long viewed as the environmental wing of the US Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, and – by accounts of AMEC officials in all concerned countries – was valuable precisely because it fostered long-term trust between the Russian and western militaries.

But last October, Norway and the United States dropped their active role in AMEC to assume an observational role as a result of a dispute with the organization’s newest and opinionated member, the United Kingdom, which joined AMEC in 2003. The row centered on the United Kingdom’s insistence on securing private contractors, specifically RWE NUKEM, to do the lion’s share of dismantlement work.

According to Norway and the United States, this was a breach of AMEC’s military to military philosophy by making AMEC rely heavily on commercial contractors. This new approach risked alienating Russian military brass whose trust had been hard-won in the thaw of the Cold War, US and Norewegian officials have said.

Kroken traveled alone
Both Kroken and Gade confirmed Kroken was traveling by herself to the Moscow meetings.

However, sticking to the story that Kroken was part of a delegation, the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs told the Strana.ru Russian news site that it was “not in possession of information that any kind of official visit by an official delegation was planned.”

Russian foreign affairs ministry spokesmen refused to comment further to Bellona Web when reached by telephone Thursday.

Upon arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Kroken said she was taken from passport control to a side room and held for five hours.

“I don’t understand Russian, but I could guess that they were discussing getting me a ticket out,” Kroken said. She said she was not treated poorly by the officials, but nor were they overly accommodating.

“It was the usual Russian truculence – I am used to it. But I stayed calm and called my embassy,” she said. She also called Gade to apprise him of the circumstances, but he told Aftenposten there was nothing he could to do extract an explanation from Russian border officials.

“The situation surrounding her is completely incomprehensible.,” said Bellona researcher Igor Kudrik. “We truly hope that this was just a big misunderstanding that will have no effect on future nuclear and radiation safety projects in Northwst Russia,” said Kudrik.

Kroken was instrumental in facilitating several programs contributing to nuclear safety in Russia. In the autumn, she played a key role along with Gade in securing financing from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign affairs to help transport and dismantle two derelict nuclear submarine that had been languishing in two of Russia’s northern bases – a project that turned out to be AMEC Norway’s $3m swan song.

Kroken is not the first Norwegian official to run into a wall in Moscow’s customs halls. Norwegian embassy and government officials are routinely stopped at Moscow airports.

Vera Ponomareva contributed to this report.

Charles Digges