WORLD

Nuclear nightmare

A leading environmental activist suffers harassment

MALCOLM GRAY June 22 1998
WORLD

Nuclear nightmare

A leading environmental activist suffers harassment

MALCOLM GRAY June 22 1998

Nuclear nightmare

A leading environmental activist suffers harassment

WORLD

RUSSIA

In a perfect world, Alexander Nikitin would be a comfortable Canadian resident by now, perhaps working as a nuclear plant technician. Instead, the former nuclear submarine commander holds the dubious honor of being declared Russia’s first prisoner of conscience of the post-communist era by Amnesty International—and faces harassment worthy of the darkest days of the Soviet Union. Two years ago, a day after he visited the Canadian Embassy in Moscow to complete a successful immigration application, security service agents arrested him on charges of violating national security. His supposed crime: providing information to a Norwegian environmental group on the dangers posed by nuclear waste and rotting nuclear submarines in Russia’s far north. Now confined to St. Petersburg, he must deal with constant surveillance, bugged telephones, clandestine searches of his apartment and the uncertainty of waiting for an unscheduled trial that could put him in jail for up to 20 years.

It has all gotten to be too much. The 45-yearold environmental activist has begun making frequent visits to a sanatorium on the outskirts of St. Petersburg—shadowed there and back, he says, by agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB in Russian), the successor

agency to the dreaded KGB. In an interview with Maclean’s last week, Nikitin described the stresses of a life that has brought him acclaim abroad and treason charges at home. Recently, someone poured glue into the door locks of his secondhand 1992 red Fada. The car’s tires have also been slashed three times during the past six weeks, he says. “FSB agents follow me, Tatiana, my wife, and our daughter, Yulia, everywhere,” he said. “Their permanent presence gets on my nerves. It has forced me to take regular treatments in the sanatorium.”

His hopes of getting himself and his family to Canada have also gone on hold, despite appeals on his behalf by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to President Boris Yeltsin. “Well take him in because he has applied successfully to be a Canadian citizen,” Chrétien told Yeltsin during his last visit to Moscow in October. But Nikitin is barred from travelling abroad, and Yeltsin has shown no interest in intervening in the case. Nor is Nikitin prepared to go to Canada while he still faces charges. “I don’t want to leave Russia before my name is cleared in court,” he says.

There is no telling how long that will take. The investigation is in its third year with no signs that a trial will begin soon—although

Nikitin is hoping for a fall date. Last month, authorities added another charge of espionage and treason against him. That made seven major counts of violating national security arising from a 1996 report that he helped write for the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental organization.

The 168-page document, entitled “The Russian Northern Fleet: the Potential Risks of Radioactive Contamination,” warned that the Russian north was a veritable nuclear catastrophe-in-waiting that might match the 1986 explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl power station. It highlighted the dangers posed by nuclear fuel stored aboard as many as 70 mothballed subs rusting away at dockside in Murmansk and other harbors near Russia’s 200-km border with Norway. Russia, too short of cash to provide a proper waste-disposal plant in the area, is the only country in the world that condones such a hazardous practice. The report also detailed how, over 20 years up to 1988, the Soviet navy disposed of 17 old nuclear reactors by simply dumping them into Arctic waters north of Murmansk.

Nikitin is adamant that the material contained in the report came from more than 800 public sources and did not reveal state secrets or violate national security. Much of the information was in fact supplied by Alexei Yablokov, until recently Yeltsin’s chief adviser on the country’s polluted environment. Like Nikitin, Yablokov argues that under the Russian constitution, environmental threats cannot be kept from public view.

But top military and security officials insist that Nikitin compromised national security. “I claim with absolute certainty that 70 per cent of the information Alexander Nikitin gathered for Bellona has nothing to do with ecology,” Yevgeny Adamov, Russia’s nuclear power minister, said recently. “His materials are technological information about our military potential.” The FSB alleges that Nikitin did not hand in his identity card after he retired from the navy in 1992. Subsequently, it claims, he used the card to gain entrance to a St. Petersburg naval base where he copied secret files for later use in the Bellona report. Overall, the FSB maintains that Nikitin violated three defence ministry decrees on state secrets—measures that are themselves classified. “It’s impossible to mount a defence,” says Nikitin’s lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, “when you don’t know what law your client is supposed to have broken.” The FSB’s clumsy handling of the case has also drawn criticism—and raised questions about post-communist Russia’s commitment to civil rights protection. Agents arrested Nikitin on Feb. 6,1996—an event he believes

might have been precipitated by his Canadian immigration visit the day before. The security service held him for eight months before it settled on the formal charges against him. In all, Nikitin spent 10 months in jail before being released in December, 1996, on condition he not leave St. Petersburg without official permission.

By then, the once-fiery activist appeared wan and worn down, even as his plight drew international attention. Last year, he won the $107,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the green movement’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. His wife and daughter accepted it for him in Washington, and Nikitin hopes to use the award money, safely stowed in a U.S. bank, to set up a fund for young Russian environmentalists.

As the FSB probe goes on, the family has fought back by taking extensive videotapes of what Tatiana calls the “men in black”: agents wearing sunglasses and dark coats who have openly followed her. Nikitin also believes the FSB jammed a live discussion of his case on a St. Petersburg radio station last month, a charge the station director supports. For the record, the FSB denies any harassment. “I have lots of work to do, so why would I organize a surveillance for Nikitin?” asks Alexander Kolb, the officer in charge of the case.

In the meantime, Russian customs officials continue to ban entry of the Bellona report, even though it is available to any Russian with a computer connection to the Internet (at www.bellona.no). Ironically, too, Yeltsin now openly acknowledges the environmental issue that Nikitin helped publicize. Late last month, Norway agreed to start paying the costs of dismantling Russia’s dangerous nuclear vessels and help build a nuclearwaste processing site for the subs’ spent fuel. “The north is thoroughly saturated by nuclear materials and the Norwegian side’s concern is well justified,” Yeltsin said during King Harald V’s May visit.

That leaves Nikitin an oddly isolated figure as he considers his options. He is unsure whether to pursue a plan for Yulia, who is currently studying English and other foreign languages at a private institute, to gain entry to a Canadian university. Her $150 monthly tuition fees are a strain on a collective family income of less than $1,000 a month. Tatiana, who has a job making documentaries with a private film-maker, would like to accompany her daughter to Canada on a visitor’s permit. But Nikitin says the family could not afford the $100,000 he estimates it would cost to maintain her and her mother during four years of study. “Perhaps,” suggests a Canadian immigration official familiar with the case, “it’s time for individuals who endorsed his environmental work to come forward as sponsors.” That would present Nikitin with a tough emotional choice, but it might be preferable to waiting for Russian justice to take its course.

MALCOLM GRAY