Bellona seminar: 10 years since Nikitin’s acquittal unites pessimism and optimism in desire to continue fight

Ruth Astrid L. Sæter

Publish date: June 16, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

The rollback in Russia’s democratic reforms since Alexander Nikitin was acquitted of espionage 10 years ago are irretrievable and nothing that would happen in the future can retrieve it from the strangle-hold of the secret police – or, there is still hope to pressure Moscow toward democratic reforms, a respect for basic rights and see the rule of law prevail.

These were the paradoxical questions faced by participants in a wide ranging Bellona symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the acquittal of Nikitin, a former Russian Naval officer and radiation safety inspector who was arrested by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, for his contribution to a Bellona report on radioactive hazards in Russia’s nuclear Northern Fleet. The FSB is the KGB’s successor agency.

Charged in 1995 with treason and espionage for his contribution to a chapter on Soviet and Russia nuclear submarine accidents and radiation levels in a Bellona report called “The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination,” Nikitin was arrested and spent the next 4 and a half years trying to clear his name in the newly democratic Russia.

bodytextimage_screen-capture.jpg Photo: Ruth Astrid L. Sæter

The battle was joined by Bellona, Norwegian and Russian legal experts and overwhelming international pressure with the insistence that he had not broken any laws. Enshrined in the Russian Constitution was the right of the public to know of the environmental conditions in which it lives. And all of the material Nikitin contributed to the report came from open sources.

His full acquittal by the Presidium of the Russian Supreme court in 2000 after it had wended its way through more than 80 hearings in lower courts marked Nikitin as the single figure in Soviet or, later, Russian history to have taken on the secret services and won.

Would Nikitin walk free today?

But where he tried for the same crimes in today’s Russia, would he have prevailed? Bellona’s symposium, “Ten Years Since the Nikitin Case – Where is Russia Heading,” sought to answer this question with the help of nearly a dozen Russian and Norwegian experts, lawyers, activists and journalists who all debated the question for an audience of about 60 at Oslo’s prestigious Literaturhuset on Wednesday.
[picture2 left]Nikitin’s own lawyer said that today’s political climate would condemn him to life in prison. Bellona said it would fight to make sure he would walk free. Yet others said that the letter of the law in Russia remains such that he would have to be found innocent. But the general consensus was a wan hope that a roll of the dice would lead to an acquittal. Russia’s is a system of absolutely no guarantees.

The roaring 90s

The fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decade after brought about opportunities for extreme reform as well as extreme corruption. It also opened the closely guarded Pandora’s box of Russia’s radioactive secrets – terrifying secrets that needed to be verified to charted in order to offer help. At first the information flowed like water, and led to the publication of the report.

Igor Kurdrik, one of the report’s co-authors who was forced to flee Russia in the wake of Nikitin’s arres, and who is a nuclear expert with Bellona, said, “The irony is that the report was useful for everyone” who would assist Russia in cleaning up it’s cold war legacy.

“But somebody didn’t like this,” said Bellona President Frederic Haugue, who gave Wednesday’s opening address. “Somebody was afraid of what we were achieving.

That someone was the FSB, which fell into a push and pull relationship with the government and the people, according to Nikitin’s head counsel, renowned human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt, as it fought to stave off its obsolescence. The FSB understood “it was doing a bad job at catching spies” and justifying its “necessity” and guarantee its continued exisitence, said Schmidt in a pre-recorded presentation to the symposium.  And what better “spy” than a retired and soft-spoken retired naval captain, according to the consensus of the symposium?
[picture3 left]Nikitin had, in the eyes of the FSB, exposed the temple’s embarrassing backside, and whether he was guilty of treason or not was immaterial. Secret laws and others that were retroactively applied from Soviet times would ensure a conviction, which carried with it the chance of the death penalty.

Schmidt, with the help of Bellona’s Jon Gauslaa and a host of other Russian and Norwegian attorneys and human rights experts demanded to fight the case on the very terms spelled out in the Russian constitution. The results shocked everyone.

No one expected an acquittal, said Gauslaa, but they would at least force Russia to fight fairly, which ironically meant a fight on its own terms. The verdict surprised everyone.

“I remember well how we all were so glad, and that we did not believe that it had happened. But it did,” said Schmidt.

“What we proved,” said Hauge, “is that it is possible to fight the FSB and win. Because of Nikitin, we dared to fight, and this became an inspiration to others.”

Gro Hilm, then Moscow bureau chief for NRK Norwegian television, which heavily covered the case, said, “We were all surprised that he was acquitted,” echoing a sentiment held by most of the Moscow foreign press corps.

What the report accomplished

The report and Nikitin’s acquittal, said Hauge, led to the establishment of both of Bellona’s Russian offices in St. Petersburg and Murmansk, as well as in Washington – precisely the opposite of what those who had tried to smother Nikitin’s words had hoped for.

The cat was out of the bag, and through work with international organisations and governments, Bellona was able to watch real progress: Of 200 submarine produced by the Soviets that eventually ended up bobbing at dockside, rusting with their nuclear fuel still on board, only one remains to be decommissioned, said Kudrik.

Light was shed on the shoddy naval nuclear waste storage practices at Andreyeva Bay. These conditions have been radically improved. Other funding sources came to the rescue, and though much remains to be done, the report that landed Nikitin in jail and court blew one of the first whistles and offered one of the first guideposts for donor nations.

One step forward, two steps back

With these accomplishments in hand, though, the current political landscape in Russia gave pause to the panellists, who were divided between optimism and pessimism for Russia’s future.

Schmidt said that the ascent of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s former hard line president and current prime minister, ushered in an era of stymieing oppression when he was handed the presidency by Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Day, 2000. Putin, a career KGB officer, brought with him a cohort of secret service types that still, even under the reign of Putin’s hand-picked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, control the Kremlin.

NGOs that freely worked and proliferated in Russia in the1990’s have fallen under the boot of the state. Of 500 civil society organisations working in Moscow as recently as 2005, only 100 remain, thanks to onerous laws on the operation of NGOs passed by Putin and his rubber stamp parliament. Not even the Helsinki Committee can get visas to go to the country were they once openly worked. And the situation is even worse for Russian NGOs.

Schmidt offered his congratulations on the achievement of Nikitin’s acquittal, but added, “I do not congratulate our country, because if the 1990s were the years of the road to democracy, then the beginning of the 21st century crowned  the beginning of the movement backward.”

In Schmidt’s prognostications, Putin will eventually return to power, as is his constitutional right in Russia, and only a severe economic collapse will wake up Russia to the fact that the system, and Putin’s ‘power vertical” must be brushed aside.

Boris Pustyntsev of St. Petersburg’s Citizens’ Watch, a rights watchdog group that participated ardently in the Nikitin case, however, did not fully share his colleague’s dark pessimism.

“I consider a pessimist to be an informed optimist,” he said. He said that under Soviet rule, finding ways to beat the system was “a national sport.”  

But regardless of Putin’s stifling rule, a new generation of Russian citizens and leaders were emerging – Russians who are connected with the outside world. And though the current circumstances of smothering basic human rights in Russia persists, said Pustyntsev, the new Russia is only 20 years old, and the nation as it stands today is simply a “natural course of development.”

Russians who grew up under the Yeltsin years came of age in an era of freedom, but that many were simply unaware of their rights.

Pustsyntsev further noted that even the corrupt bureaucracy governing Russia keeps its money in foreign banks and sends its children to foreign schools. These, he said, are ties that will not easily be broken, and may provide, in an ironic twist, the undoing of the current power vertical as newer generations of Russians are exposed to the principles of the individual above the state.

Even the current administration, he said, is steeped in the accoutrement of the west.

“The attributes of a civilized society are enshrined in the constitution,” he said. “It was a mistake in the 90s to expect rapid change.”

He said the only way Russia could completely reverse the clock would be to experience absolute economic collapse, shutting it off from the rest of the world. The prolongation of totalitarian tendencies could lead to such a collapse – but would also mean the present bureaucracy would be separated from its billions stashed in foreign banks. In a sense, Pustyntsev hinted that the status quo of corruption would buoy Russia through to a period when newer generations replace the current kleptocracy.

But Pustyntsev qualified his remarks.

“Of course, there are no guarantees – the current situation (in Russia) could continue or get worse,” he said.

Amid a ruined press, the internet survives

Further bolstering ties to the outside, noted Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Fund, a Russian Press watchdog, is the advent of the internet in Russia.

During the Yeltsin years, the notoriously dominant oligarchs owned Russia’s media from numerous television station to dozens of daily newspapers. They may not have been altogether balanced, noted Simonov, but they offered a plethora varying opinion and debate. They also led to exposure of the Nikitin case, which led to the tremendous international support that helped win the case.

Now that Putin has pushed the oligarchs away, so too has the independent media been smothered.

One opposition newspaper, an objective radio station and a handful of regional papers remain, said Simonov, but the internet remains an echo of the past plurality of opinion, providing Russia with at least one independent medium.

Yet statistics for Russians’ access to the internet remain low. Only 30 percent of Russians regularly go online, and the majority of these live in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Environmental consequences of today’s Russia

Alexei Yablokov, Russia’s leading environmentalists, Yeltsin’s former environmental advisor, and a former parliamentarian,  showed that Russia’s culture of consumerism has devoured the environment.

Living conditions throughout the country have plunged. Ninety-six percent of Russia’s air is unhealthy to breath. Cases of illegal waste dumping number in the hundred’s of thousands, and Russia is all too happy to accept radioactive waste from other nations to pile on top of its own – much of which deteriorates in the open air. Adding insult to injury, government level environmental oversight agencies have been dismantled.

He noted further that Russia’s life expectancy decreased from 1990 to 2000, despite the fact that Russia was rolling in money from its oil deposits.

“This is not by chance,” said Yablokov, “but is a policy of de-ecologization.”

In the 1990s, he said, 0.05 percent of the state budget was devoted to solving environmental problems. As scant as that was, the amount has now plunged to 0.001 percent. Yablokov also added the voice of the Russian population, who have expressed in polls that they think they live in bad environmental conditions.

As for harassment of environmental organisations, said Simonov, they are simply raided and their files, computers and information are destroyed.

Apathy or simply uninformed?

Nikitin himself said that such conditions, and Russia’s political conditions in general, could be attributed to Russians’ apathy.

“There is no civil society in Russia today, but there is a passive society,” he told the symposium. “No one is taking into account the condition of the situation of civil society, journalism or the environment.”

He went on to say that Russia must give up on its aspirations of restoring itself to a great world power in order to search out resources for a stable economy. The power vertical created by Putin is tantamount to a unitary state, he said, and because of Russia’s size, such a state is unsustainable. But he added that he had ‘little optimism” for the country’s future.

“What has changed in Russia?” he asked the symposium. “Nothing.”

How bad is it and where will it go from here?

In such a state of affairs, as well as divisions of opinion among those who this state of affairs affects most intimately, there are few bellwethers to follow.

Schmidt, in his video appearance, pleaded to the international community to keep a watchful eye trained on Russia. But that also came with a warning.

“I turn to you, especially our foreign colleagues and partners not to forget who your are dealing with when you meet with Russian officials,” he said.

“Try to make sure that, at least, our foreign partners in realizing their plans, absolutely giant plans (…) that you continually remind Russia of the necessity to observe human rights and other international characteristics of rights and freedoms.”

Bellona’s Kudrik was not satisfied to let matters stand at hoping for international intervention.
“There are always options,” he said. “One option in the Nikitin case was to stay quiet. Yet we didn’t, and Bellona is still here – as long as the authorities continue on their current path, our option is to keep bothering them.”

Bellona’s Hauge agreed, saying, “we must continue to fight. He added that he “shares in the pessimism over conditions (in Russia) as they are today,” but also recalled for the symposium the difficult choice Bellona faced when Nikitin was jailed.

“On the one hand, we had the (Norwegian) Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling use to stay away,” he said, “but the best piece of advice I got was pursue another option – to slam out fist on the table until we got to talk to the KGB.”

Democracy, he added, is “something that you have to fight for everyday.” And though he is dissatisfied with Russia’s current situation, Hauge infused a note of optimism in his final address to the symposium.

“We have had no real problems with the FSB since winning the Nikitin case, and they will think twice about crossing us again should any problems arise,” he said.