By Renfrey Clarke MOSCOW — For anyone puzzled by the inability of the once all-powerful Russian security services to prevent crime, part of the mystery is now explained. To a significant degree, the resources of the Federal Security Service (FSB — the former KGB) are now being used to persecute environmentalists. Since October 5, the FSB has run a campaign of raids, arrests and interrogations against members and collaborators in Russia of the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental organisation whose activity includes studying radioactive contamination in the Russian north. For several weeks, the FSB failed to respond to demands that it state the purpose of its campaign. Eventually, spokespeople for the security service appeared on television with vague accusations of espionage. The real reason behind the attacks on Bellona appears to be alarm among the commanders of the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy at a forthcoming Bellona report on radioactive contamination of the Kola Peninsula, where the Northern Fleet is based. The Russian Navy has a horrifying record of accidents involving nuclear-powered warships, and of releases of radioactivity into the environment. Not long before the raids began, Bellona circulated a draft of its report to Russian government agencies, in order to elicit comments before final publication. The navy, it seems likely, responded by prompting the FSB to try to intimidate the environmentalists into keeping the document under wraps. Bellona has been studying the environmental problems of the Kola Peninsula since 1989. In March 1994 the organisation opened an office in Murmansk, the main city on the peninsula, and released a report entitled "Sources of Radioactive Pollution in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Provinces". Despite painting a grim picture of existing environmental damage and of the potential for future catastrophes, Bellona activists avoided raising a hue and cry against the Russian authorities, trying instead to map out practical ways to improve the situation. Over time the response from the Murmansk Province administration, and from some elements within the navy, came to be respectful and even collaborative. An expanded and updated version of the 1994 report was prepared. It was a draft of this latter version that was sent recently to Russian official bodies. On the evening of October 5 one of Bellona's Russian staff, Sergei Filippov, was taken by FSB agents from a plane about to leave for Oslo, and was held and interrogated for three hours. Simultaneously, FSB operatives seized Bellona's offices in Murmansk, while four other teams searched the apartments of environmental activists in the city. FSB agents remained in Bellona's offices until 4pm the following day. They confiscated three computers, diskettes and printed documents, as well as printers and a video camera. Also seized were 400 copies of Bellona's 1994 report. On October 10 the FSB searched two apartments in the city of Severodvinsk in Arkhangelsk Province. A representative of a local environmental organisation, who had met several times with Bellona activists, was taken in for interrogation. Severodvinsk is the site of a large nuclear submarine construction facility. Then on October 11 security forces searched the Murmansk apartment of Rear-Admiral Nikolai Mormul, a veteran nuclear submarine fleet commander who had supplied Bellona with non- classified information about the history of the fleet. Various documents were seized. Also searched that evening was the St Petersburg apartment of a technical specialist named Perovsky who, according to Bellona, had been "very helpful with professional advice on the storage of radioactive waste on the Kola Peninsula". Following the raids, Bellona and the Norwegian government requested an official explanation, which the FSB failed to provide. It was only on October 18 that security force representatives went on St Petersburg evening television to state their case. "We have started a criminal investigation on suspicion of divulging state secrets", the agency asserted. Materials containing secret information on the Northern Fleet were said to have been discovered and confiscated. According to FSB spokespeople, the security forces were "establishing the circle of people involved in disclosing this information". In statements on the news program, the FSB claimed not only that Bellona was aiding and working on behalf of Western intelligence services, but that Western environmentalists in general were using environmentalism as a cover for espionage. Bellona responded by flatly denying that it had divulged any state secrets about the Northern Fleet. "All our material is collected from open sources", the environmentalists stated. "Only the collocation is our own. We have never investigated military, only environmental issues." If any information on the environment were classified as secret, Bellona pointed out, the secrecy would be illegal. The Russian constitution states that information on emergencies and catastrophes that threaten the safety of citizens, as well as information on the environment, health and demography, may not be classified. Bellona activists are now preparing for a press conference in mid-November, at which the new version of the report on the Kola Peninsula is expected to be released. For the moment, the FSB has not brought charges against any of the people it has interrogated. But the environmentalists are far from assuming that the danger has passed. A number of facts suggest that the campaign against Bellona was not ordered at the top level of the FSB, where the overall interests of the Russian ruling stratum usually prevail over efforts by aggrieved sectors of the apparatus to defend their power. It is hard to imagine the Moscow security chiefs — shrewd, sophisticated politicians, however ruthless their mentality — initiating actions that were bound to do major damage to Norwegian-Russian relations. The danger of radioactive contamination from Russia is a sensitive issue in Norway, and Bellona is highly regarded by Norwegians. The attacks on the organisation were guaranteed to antagonise the Norwegian public, and to force leaders of the country's government to speak out in protest. The reaction in Moscow foreign policy circles to the campaign against Bellona has presumably been furious, since the October 5 raids came the day after Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev met in Oslo with his Norwegian counterpart. A protocol signed during the meeting addressed Norwegian concerns about the nuclear danger on the Kola Peninsula, with the Russian side pledging "to make information about nuclear installations and nuclear activities available in accordance with the present agreements and to promote common efforts to strengthen nuclear safety and prevent radioactive pollution". Large numbers of Norwegians will now have decided that these promises are worthless. Rather than originating in Moscow, the campaign against Bellona was probably instigated by senior commanders of the Northern Fleet, with help from friends and allies in the St Petersburg organisation of the FSB. A pointer here is the extraordinary series of actions that followed the shutdown of electricity supplies to the Gadzhievo naval base on the Kola Peninsula on September 21, as a result of the Northern Fleet's inability to pay its electricity bills. On their own initiative, fleet commanders sent troops to seize control of electrical installations in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk provinces. Charged with taking care of large quantities of dangerous nuclear waste, and denied adequate funds, the Northern Fleet commanders seem increasingly inclined to try to defend themselves through free-lance acts of aggression against perceived enemies — whether local electricity supply companies or environmental activists. If this version of events is correct, the St Petersburg FSB will probably be slapped down by the central authorities, and the campaign against Bellona will end for the present. The campaign for free information in Russia will have suffered extensive damage. Russians are well aware that no-one in their country's ruling stratum likes whistle-blowing by members of the public. The intimidation suffered by Bellona activists and their collaborators during the past month will make potential critics of official abuses reflect once more on the benefits of staying silent.
Russian security forces persecute environmentalists
If you like our work, become a supporter
Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.
For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.
Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.