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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- A Past Too Much With Us

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decree reclosing a city in his country to all outsiders reflects both how little has changed in his country since Soviet times -- and also how much.

On the one hand, Yeltsin's action simply extends the Soviet practice of using this administrative device to hide things Moscow does not want anyone to find out about. But more disturbingly, it calls attention to both the large number of Russian cities that remain "closed" from Soviet times and Yeltsin's willingness to close some opened more recently.

On the other, the Russian president's actions have sparked a lively public discussion in the Russian press about both Yeltsin's motives in this particular case and the implications of using this administrative device in a country that seeks to be a democratic one.

At the end of July, Yeltsin issued a decree declaring that Shikhana, an urban center some 130 kilometers north of Samara, was once again a "closed city." This decree means that no one -- Russian or foreigner -- can enter it without special permission from the Russian defense or interior ministries.

A closed city in Soviet times known as Volzhk 18, Shikhana is home to some 15,000 civilians, an unknown number of military personnel, and one of the Russian military's largest chemical weapons manufacturing and testing facilities.

The Soviet authorities routinely closed such military industry centers both to enhance the army's control of their populations and to block efforts by foreign intelligence services to gain access to their secrets.

But at the end of the Soviet era and in the beginning of post-Soviet Russian history, Moscow ended such restrictions in many cases. Sometimes this was done because of a sense that the end of the Cold War made such restrictions obsolete.

Sometimes, these restrictions were lifted in response to local civilian pressures for greater democratization. And sometimes, Moscow took this step in order to give Russian military industries located in these areas the ability to market their goods abroad.

Not surprisingly, many Russian reformers are deeply concerned about both Yeltsin's motives in this particular case and his willingness to use Soviet-style methods to deal with some fundamental political, economic, and ecological problems.

One Moscow paper has suggested that Yeltsin's motives were anything but encouraging. It quoted the conclusion of an ecological group based in Samara that "the closing of Shikhana is nothing less than the sabotage of the process of destroying chemical weapons according to the agreements Russia has signed and which it is prepared to sign."

As a result, the leader of the group Vladimir Petrenko told Obshchaya gazeta, Yeltsin "has given back total secrecy to the manufacture and testing of chemical weapons."

Another environmental group from the region told the Moscow press that the closing of the city might in fact be the result of reform rather than a means of blocking it. The"Ecology and Legal Defense" group said that the Russian army has set up a private commercial firm in Shikhana to produce and sell highly-toxic arsenic.

The group said that one of the founders of this company is Stanislav Petrov, the head of Russia's chemical weapons troops. And the group's spokesman implied that Petrov had used his influence to get Yeltsin to take a step that will make it difficult for anyone to monitor what he is doing or to prevent his company from continuing to poison the environment there.

What is most striking about all this, of course, is not the existence of closed cities in a country long used to their existence or the willingness of officials and entrepreneurs there to use this method to advance their own interests, however selfish or duplicitous.

Instead, what is striking is that Yeltsin's actions have sparked discussions in Moscow but they have not prompted widespread protests from the West, both from human rights activists concerned about progress toward the rule of law there and from governments concerned that Russia live up to its promises to destroy chemical weapons.

At a time when the United States has allowed the Russian air force to overfly American territory -- as it did this week under the provisions of the "open skies" agreement -- Yeltsin's decision to reclose a city is a particularly disturbing reminder that some unfortunate features of the past remain very much with us.