Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Nikitin Espionage Case Drags On

Prague, July 19 (RFE/RL) - Six months after being arrested on charges of espionage, retired Russian naval officer Alexander Nikitin still languishes in a prison cell in St. Petersburg.

Three days ago, a St. Petersburg court denied bail to Nikitin. The judge said the charges were too grave and that the court feared Nikitin might flee the country before his trial. It was the fourth time since March that Nikitin's request for bail was denied.

The case has become something of a cause celebre. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Oslo earlier this year, he was met by protesting Norwegians demanding the release of Nikitin. The European Parliament has voiced its concern. Amnesty International periodically releases press items charging that Nikitin is being held on flimsy charges. Even the rock singer Sting has written Yeltsin with pleas to release Nikitin.

The case involving Nikitin centers on information contained in a report issued three months ago (April 18) by the Norway-based environmental group, Bellona. Entitled "The Russian Northern Fleet - Source of Radioactive Contamination," the report chronicled the environmental damage caused to the Murmansk region by the Northern Fleet's 84 nuclear submarines. Nikitin cooperated in preparing the report.

The coast of the Kola peninsula has the highest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. According to a 1994 Bellona report, most of the world's known reactor accidents have involved the Northern Fleet's submarines.

Though fewer submarines are in service today, economic hardships have led to lax maintenance of the vessels. As a result, each submarine has become increasingly accident-prone. In addition, the fleet reportedly stopped dumping nuclear waste at sea in 1991 and now stores it at sites across the Kola peninsula.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB)--the successor to the KGB--says the report contains top secret information to which Nikitin was privy during his service in the Russian navy. The FSB charged Nikitin with espionage, saying he passed to Bellona classified documents about Russia's largest strategic fleet. If found guilty, Nikitin could be put to death.

Bellona denies Nikitin provided it with top-secret documents. It says all the material in its report was culled from publicly-accessible sources.

The Nikitin tale began in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk on October 6, when FSB agents raided Bellona offices. The agents seized computers, disks and files they believed might contain top-secret information. They also interrogated the three Russians working for the group. They stopped Sergei Fillipov, the head of the Murmansk branch of Bellona, as he was about to board a plane for Norway.

Vladimir Sokolov, a spokesman for the FSB in Murmansk, told RFE/RL that its agents were following orders from the St. Petersburg prosecutor general. Sokolov also said the FSB wants to catch Russians who sell state secrets.

A month after the raid and a series of interrogations, the FSB in Murmansk called a news conference. FSB Director Gennady Gurilev announced that some of the seized material was deemed top secret information. On February 6, Nikitin was arrested in his St. Petersburg apartment in connection with the case. No officials from Bellona have been charged.

Olej Bjornoy, the Norwegian consul in Murmansk, said the FSB may have viewed Bellona as an easy target against whom they could "flex their muscles." Bjornoy said the FSB apparently did not realize that Bellona enjoyed widespread support. He said that the FSB may now wish the case would go away.

Frederick Hauge, the Norwegian director of Bellona, told the Russian press last year he thought his organization became the victim of parliamentary election campaigning as Russian politicians courted the nationalist vote.

But Anatoly Kostii, who coordinates a U.N. development project in Murmansk, labeled Bellona "extremist" and prone to criticize while offering little concrete advice.

In Murmansk, however, Bellona is generally viewed favorably by people who work on environmental issues.

Andrei Zolotkov, a deputy in the Murmansk Oblast Duma, praises the environmental group. Zolotkov, a biologist by profession, says Bellona has been instrumental in devising a plan to clean up nuclear waste in the eastern region of the Kola Peninsula.But Zolotkov doesn't rule out the possibility that Bellona may have leaked state secrets in its last report because its new focus is military-related issues.

One of Russia's leading environmental advocates, Aleksei Yablokov, says the longer the case against Nikitin drags on, the more it appears that the charges were trumped up.

Yablokov noted in an article published by Izvestiya in March that the law under which Nikitin is charged forbids the classification of documents on environmental matters. Yablokov, who sits on Russia's Security Council, acknowledged that the Bellona report contains "tactical and technical information on all types of nuclear submarines based in the Kola Peninsula." But he contended that a similar but even more detailed report was made public in 1994.

Igor Kudrik of Bellona says the military commission which determined that the report contained state secrets also acknowledged that it used a very broad definition of what constituted classified data. According to Kudrik, the experts conceded that under this definition even the well-known 1989 sinking of the Soviet nuclear submarine "Komsomolets" would fall under the rubric of a state secret.

Kudrik said the FSB is dragging the case out until it determines how to save face. Meanwhile, Nikitin waits in prison, held without bail.

The FSB does not seem to be in a hurry to put Nikitin on trial. Yuri Kolpochok, the FSB spokesman in St. Petersburg, says the investigation is continuing and gave no indication for a trial date.

But Russian law may force FSB's hand. Under the law, the FSB must either put Nikitin on trial by October or free him.

  • 16x9 Image

    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.