Yeltsin shares spotlight with Western democracies as his deputies uphold old Soviet traditions

Publish date: June 21, 1997

Press relase from Bellona USA

Yeltsin shares spotlight with Western democracies as his deputies uphold old Soviet traditions

Just as President Boris Yeltsin packed his suitcase to leave for the Denver summit, the Russian Security Police FSB, the unreformed successor to the infamous Soviet KGB, decided to indict the award-winning environmentalist Alexandr Nikitin, an employee of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona – under Soviet secret laws and Cold War procedures. This marks another step in a series of human rights violations as well as judicial errors with respect to the new Russian constitution and raises the question, is Russia ready to sit at one table with the leaders of the free world?

"These violations of Russia’s own constitution by Russian prosecutors and secret police officers are ample proof that Russia is not yet able or willing to follow the rule of law as required in a democracy," said Thomas Nilsen, co-author of Bellona’s report on Russia’s nuclear fleet that started the Nikitin affair. Nevertheless, President Clinton is lobbying the leaders of the seven most industrialized democracies to accept Russia in their midst as one of their equals.

The U.S. policy is shortsighted. Rewards for bad behavior reinforce the latter. The Clinton Administration has made NATO enlargement the centerpiece of its foreign policy, dropping all considerations of human rights, environmental safety and democratization along the way. Ironically, this policy may well make NATO necessary in the future: If Russia is not pressured to stay on the path towards democracy even through periods when that is hard to swallow for those in positions of power, the country will invariable return to the authoritarian ways of old and become once again an enemy rather than an ally.

A test case for grassroots democracy

The Nikitin affair is a test case for the rule of law as well as the development of grassroots democracy in the young and frail Russian democracy," according to Thomas Jandl, the director of Bellona USA in Washington. Bellona’s Murmansk office has experienced first-hand the chilling effect the charges have on individual citizens’ willingness to get engaged in issues they care about and that concern their lives more than periodic election. "Democracy lives or dies with the willingness of the people to participate in it. Hence, when the Nikitins of Russia are suppressed, democracy withers; regardless of the fairness and frequency of elections," said Nilsen.

Nikitin has been "investigated" with all the Soviet-style harassment for nearly two years. Nikitin does not know what his crimes are, as even now that the investigation is completed, neither he nor his lawyer have received permission to examine the charges. His employer Bellona, has methodically been denied visas for its personnel, making it impossible to testify in Nikitin’s defense – an unacceptable situation in a democracy.

Nikitin has been adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and is supported by a wide range of international groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Sierra Club. The U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights is reviewing the case.

Direct danger to the G-7 countries

Aside the fact that only a democratic and prosperous Russia will not pose a threat to the rest of the world in the future, there is an immediate danger to the globe in the form of the nuclear nightmare Nikitin and Bellona described. Even if the G-7 are unwilling to interfere in a country’s internal human rights affairs, they are well advised to take up the issue of nuclear contamination. Russian experts have called the Kola peninsula a Chernobyl in slow motion. The greatest concentration of nuclear material is stored there often without any safeguards. Bellona documented nuclear waste storage sites without a fence around, let alone appropriate radiation controls.

The Nikitin case jeopardizes international projects aimed at securing the nuclear waste on the Kola peninsula. Lawmakers in the U.S. and elsewhere are already asking if taxpayer money is well spent when the Russian authorities crack down on activists who point out problems.

For these important projects to continue, it is imperative that the G-7 demand from Russia accountability and openness. Only where government accepts control through its citizenry and advocacy groups can progress be sustainable. In issues such as nuclear safety, sustainability is survival.

A Chernobyl in slow motion

The Bellona report on the Russian Northern fleet describes this sinking radioactive nightmare. Today there are more than 90 retired nuclear powered submarines laid up along the Arctic Coast of the Kola Peninsula. Most of these boats still have their nuclear reactors containing their highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel on board. Nuclear waste is stored unprotected at 11 different submarine bases and shipyards near Murmansk – with the guards supposed to watch it going without salaries for months at a time.


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