Russia’s Environmental Dissident

Editorial in The New York Times, August 22nd 1998

Russia’s Environmental Dissident

Few Russians can do more to help their country solve one of its most perilous radioactive waste problems than Aleksandr Nikitin.

Mr. Nikitin was an engineer on a nuclear submarine in the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet and a nuclear safety inspector in the Soviet, and then the Russian, defense ministry. Later, he raised public alarms over nuclear waste left in the Arctic by submarine accidents and haphazard disposal of spent reactor cores. But instead of listening to Mr. Nikitin’s recommendations, Russia is prosecuting him for high treason and disclosure of state secrets. Amnesty International considers him its first major Russian prisoner of conscience case since Andrei Sakharov. His trial is likely to begin next month, underscoring the risks that environmental activists face in a Russia whose security service and justice system can still be twisted against dissidents, Soviet-style.

Mr. Nikitin works for the Bellona Foundation, an environmental group with offices in Norway and Russia. He was arrested in 1996 after contributing to a Bellona book on the Northern Fleet’s radioactive waste. He was jailed for 10 months, and has been confined to St.Petersburg for the past two years. While the group was researching its report, the Russian F.S.B. — the K.G.B.’s successor – raided its Murmansk office and confiscated all its materials. But Bellona was able to reconstruct its research from open sources, which bolsters its credible claim that it revealed no secrets.

The indictment of Mr. Nikitin cites classified decrees that are still kept from his lawyer, which violates the Russian Constitution and hinders his defense. At least one was issued after Mr. Nikitin’s arrest. He will be tried in secret by a judge and two laymen, who will be chosen by the F.S.B. The American State Department says that the facts of the case suggest his detention was politically motivated. Vice President Al Gore has taken up Mr. Nikitin’s cause in meetings with Russian leaders, but has not raised the matter in public.

The attack on Mr. Nikitin has paralyzed Russia’s few environmental groups, which fear that the use of even public sources about sensitive issues or affiliations with Western groups could open them to treason charges. The nuclear and environmental disasters that the Soviet Union inflicted on itself pose dangers that need to be cleaned up and removed.

Mr. Nikitin is not an enemy, but an ally in that struggle