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Security Watch: December 4, 2000

4 December 2000, Volume 1, Number 20
'KURSK' DISASTER FINALLY EXPLAINED. On 28-29 November, "Komsomolskaya pravda" published the findings of an independent experts' investigation into the "Kursk" sinking. The group, which included the former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, who had experience with five submarine disasters and has investigated 20 major underwater incidents; the first commander of the "Kursk;" the commander of a Kursk-class submarine; another admiral; and a deep-sea diver with more than 2,000 hours of diving time, rejected all three explanations offered by the authorities.

They said that there was no evidence for a collision with a World War II-era mine or a NATO-member submarine, and they concluded that the suggestion that arms aboard the ship had detonated did not fit the facts at their disposal.

Specifically, they pointed to the fact that all 24 missiles remained intact while the torpedoes had exploded, as shown by a video showing an enormous outer explosion precisely over the torpedo compartment. The group said that it would not provide more details for what its leader said were "ethical" reasons. But the very next day, "Komsomolskaya pravda" talked to an expert who has prepared a secret report for the official government commission led by Ilya Klebanov. This expert, who refused to be named, said that the "Kursk" disaster had a far more prosaic cause than those that have been suggested up to now.

This unnamed expert told the newspaper that it had been established that someone on the "Kursk" had discovered that one of the torpedoes was leaking fuel and that the ship's captain ordered it to be jettisoned, as naval rules require. Apparently, the expert said, the sailors just managed to load the torpedo into the launch tube when the chemical reaction began. A flame from that torpedo then ignited five additional torpedoes in the compartment, with an explosive force equal to 2.5 tons of TNT. The defective torpedo then shot through the launch door and exploded there, causing the external damage many observers had noted.

MOSCOW TURNS ON TBILISI. The Russian Foreign Ministry on 29 November published the new entry visa rules for Georgian citizens who want to visit the Russian Federation. Under the new rules, Georgians can obtain the visas only in Tbilisi, and none will be issued on the spot. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, told ORT on 29 November that Moscow had been forced to impose visas because of what he called "the strange position of Georgia towards Chechen terrorists who have built their nest on its territory."

SERGEEV INVITES JAPAN INTO 'MULTIPOLAR' WORLD. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev told his Tokyo hosts that Moscow's recent overtures to China and India were not intended to isolate Japan and that in the new "multipolar world," Russia sees a major place for Japan, RIA-Novosti reported on 29 November. He added that Russia is prepared to sell Japan all non-nuclear weapons in its arsenal and he expressed interest in organizing bilateral military games.

JAPANESE OFFICER ADMITS SPYING FOR MOSCOW. Even as Russian Defense Minister Sergeev visited Tokyo, Japanese naval officer Shigehiro Hagisaki pleaded guilty in a Tokyo court to spying for Russia, "Kommersant" reported on 29 November. Hagisaki was caught red-handed in September during a meeting with the Russian naval attache in the Japanese capital. The self-confessed spy said that he had given the Russian embassy documents on plans for the future development of the Japanese navy. Russian intelligence officials said his confession was "a provocation," but the Moscow newspaper acknowledged that it had cast a shadow on Igor Sergeev's visit.

POLES CONCERNED ABOUT RUSSIAN PIPELINE. Polish media have reported that the Gazprom pipeline through Poland will be equipped with a high-tech fiber optic cable that might be used for spying, "Segodnya" reported on 23 November. The Polish side reportedly learned of the cable only recently, and its discovery of this feature of the Russian pipeline has infuriated Gazprom officials, the paper said. A Gazprom spokesman insisted that the cable is used solely for communications along the pipeline route.

PUTIN SUPPORTS ISRAEL AND PALESTINIANS. President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow has to be concerned about the security of Israel because there are so many Russian compatriots living there, Interfax reported on 27 November. But he added that Moscow remains committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Putin's remarks about "compatriots" appears to be a response to reports in the Israeli media that the Palestinians have asked Putin to prohibit Russian citizens from serving in the Israeli army.

RUSSIA HOPES TO GAIN FROM BARAK'S DEPARTURE. reported on 27 November that the possible fall of the Israeli government of Ehud Barak might work to Russia's benefit. His likely successors, according to the website, which is controlled by Kremlin ideologist Gleb Pavlovsky, would be less willing to follow the dictates of Washington. And that, in turn, could allow the Russian authorities to play a significantly larger role in the Middle East.

DUMA LIMITS YELTSIN'S IMMUNITY. The Duma has approved on first read a bill which preserves most of the privileges former President Boris Yeltsin enjoys under the terms of a decree by his successor, Vladimir Putin, Interfax reported on 29 November. But in contrast to the sweeping provisions of the decree, the bill gives Yeltsin immunity from prosecution only concerning his actions as president and does not give immunity to members of his family. Putin's representative in the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, who introduced the bill for the Kremlin, said that he was prepared to modify the bill before the second reading to limit Yeltsin's immunity still further, if that should prove to be "a legal necessity." Meanwhile, ORT reported on 29 November that no former president in any other country enjoys as much immunity as Yeltsin does, and "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported that Yeltsin is costing the Russian taxpayers far more than former President Ronald Reagan is costing the American ones.

GORBACHEV STATUS ALSO UNDER CONSIDERATION. Aleksandr Kotenkov told ORT on 29 November that the Duma must decide "whether to include Mikhail Gorbachev" within the provisions of the law on former Russian presidents. He added that he personally would not "object to that." Were Gorbachev to be included, he would regain many of the privileges he lost under Yeltsin.

DRUGS SAID TO THREATEN NATIONAL SECURITY. Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov told Interfax on 29 November that drug trafficking is now on the list of "direct threats to the national security" of the country. He said that the situation with regard to drug trafficking and drug use was bad and deteriorating, with the number of heroin addicts increasing by 400 percent in the last year. He predicted that the total number of drug abusers in Russia will reach four million in the next few years.

KREMLIN HOPES TO STOP DEFENSE 'BRAIN DRAIN.' First Deputy Minister of Industry and Science Mikhail Kirpichnikov told the government that the outflow of scientists working on defense projects threatens the country's "security and even independence," "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 28 November. He said that approximately 85 percent of all Russian doctors of science are now working abroad, a pattern that threatens Russia's ability to conduct basic research. To counter this trend, Kirpichnikov said, the government has allocated 1.74 billion rubles ($62 million) for higher salaries, better equipment, and better housing. Meanwhile, ORT reported the same day that President Putin has signed a decree increasing by 400 percent the stipends for students working in areas required by the defense industry.

BANKS TO BE 'FULL PARTNERS' WITH GOVERNMENT? Volga Super District presidential envoy Sergei Kirienko told a Novgorod banking forum that the government wants the banking community to be a "full partner of the state," "Kommersant" reported on 29 November. At the same session, the Central Bank's first deputy chairman, Tatyana Paramonova said that all Russian banks will be audited concerning their exports of funds. She said that special criteria had been developed to prevent capital flight in the future and that violations of these rules will be "severely suppressed."

PUTIN CALLS JUSTICES TO IMPROVE THEIR WORK. President Vladimir Putin told a national meeting of Russian judges that judicial reform has moved too slowly but that is no reason to break up the whole system, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 November. He promised to provide additional funds over the next year to raise salaries and improve court operations. But he said judges will have to work harder to improve their reputations, noting that Vladimir Dal's famous dictionary does not contain a single positive proverb about judges.

BORODIN SAID TO HAVE SWISS ACCOUNTS. Geneva prosecutor Bernard Bertossa told "Kommersant" on 29 November that he has proof that the former chief of the presidential property office, Pavel Borodin, has several accounts in Swiss banks. Borodin has denied ever having any foreign accounts, which may be literally true. Bertossa said that the accounts in question had been opened under another name. He added that "we are not investigating Russian corruption but only money-laundering and criminal activity in Switzerland." In response, the paper said, Borodin's lawyers have demanded that the Swiss charge Bertossa and his colleague, Daniel Devaud, with breach of confidentiality as a result of their statements to the court.

PUTIN SEEKS TIGHTER BORDERS BUT NO 'IRON CURTAIN.' President Vladimir Putin told the Russian Security Council that Moscow must improve its control over the state border, Interfax reported on 29 November. He said that would improve Russia's relations with its neighbors and reduce drug trafficking and illegal immigration across these frontiers. Putin also said that more has to be done to protect Russia's interests in the Arctic Sea basin, where Russia has claimed an addition 1.2 million square kilometers of seabed (see "RFE/RL Security Watch," 9 October 2000).

RUSSIAN CHARGED WITH SPYING FOR ISRAEL. Egyptian officials have charged an Egyptian engineer and an as-yet unnamed former Russian military officer with spying for Israel, Reuters and AFP reported on 28 November. Israel's Russian-language news agency MIGnews said that the Russian citizen, who will be tried in absentia, had recruited the Egyptian engineer in Spain in 1998 to work for the Mossad.

LUZHKOV AUTHORS CRIMINAL UTOPIA TALE. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov published in the 28 November "Moskovsky komsomolets" a fictional story about a criminal utopia which many readers believe is an allegorical criticism of the presidency of Vladimir Putin. In his story, Luzhkov suggests that the utopia was created via elections run by the criminal underworld. And because of its services to those in power, the criminal leaders gain a share of power, something not true under socialism. The new system, the tale continues, is not like the Western model but something very different, one based on the domestic culture of thieves.

MOSCOW ADOPTS NATIONAL ENERGY STRATEGY. "Vremya MN" reported on 24 November that the Russian government has prepared a document titled "A National Energy Strategy," which formulates the goals of Russian energy policy through 2020. Energy Minister Aleksandr Gavrin said that Russia will reduce its dependence on gas and oil over this period and increase its reliance on coal. One reason for that, the document says, is because of the probable deterioration of the country's petroleum infrastructure as well as a decline in reserves. The strategy also calls for increasing domestic energy prices by 270 percent over the next several years, with customers bearing 80 percent of the burden.

MOSCOW SEEKS TO ATTRACT IMMIGRANTS. The Russian government is enthusiastically behind President Putin's call for addressing Russia's demographic crisis by attracting immigrants from the former Soviet republics, "Vedomosti" reported on 28 November. A spokesman for the Regional, National, and Migration Ministry said that immigrants were most needed in Siberia, Khakassia, Buryatia, and Komi. Meanwhile, Presidential envoy to the Central Super District, Georgi Poltachenko, said that he plans to establish special camps for immigrants near large cities. Each of these camps, he said, will concentrate 100,000 people who will be kept busy on public works until they can find permanent housing.


By Paul Goble

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for improving the effectiveness of state control over the country's borders in order to prevent the influx of illegal drugs and to improve relations with Russia's neighbors.

But the Russian leader has stressed that the new border institutions will be built in correspondence with international law and will not lead to the creation of a "new Iron Curtain."

Speaking to the Russian Security Council on 29 November, Putin complained that Russian officials at every level have "spoken a lot but done little on the state level to create a new image of the state border" -- one very different from that most people in Russia and abroad had in the past.

But if Putin stressed the need for building a democratic border, other officials at the Security Council session made remarks that suggest Moscow may now seek to have far greater control over its frontiers than at any time since the end of the USSR.

Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov said that Putin's injunction means that the Russian authorities must work quickly to provide better social support for border guards. And while he too said that the new border will look very different than the Soviet-era one, he added that "the border was, is, and will be the face of the state."

Ivanov's deputy, Oleg Chernov, was even more blunt in his assessment of what needs to be done. He told the meeting that "due to the absence of the necessary border infrastructure, the Russian border remains transparent," especially with its Central Asian neighbors from which illegal drugs frequently come.

And Federal Border Guards chief Konstantin Totsky said that it was absolutely necessary to come up with what he called a proper border infrastructure, a reference to Putin's call for "defense in depth" along the frontier rather than a single border line as during Soviet times.

Totsky also attempted during this week's meeting to put the planned cuts in the number of border guards in context. Earlier, the Security Council had ordered a reduction of 15,000 border troops and of 1,000 civilian personnel involved in guarding the country's borders.

Such cuts, Totsky argued, may actually improve Moscow's control of the Russian border: "It's better to have one operational vessel than three broken ones," he said, "and to have one fully-equipped border outpost rather than three understaffed ones."

Whether Putin's directive or the decisions of the Russian Security Council will be fully implemented remains uncertain, but both Putin's concerns and the statements of Russian officials at this meeting call attention to a problem that all the post-Soviet states continue to wrestle with.

Each of them has had to face the challenge of converting internal administrative lines into international state borders to affirm their own sovereignty and to protect their citizens without taking steps that cut them off from traditional trading partners or exacerbating tensions with them or with others.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in these countries and the West urged a minimalist approach to border development. They hoped for continuing cooperation among these states and believed that money spent on erecting new border institutions could be better spent on other things.

The expanding flow of drugs and illegal immigrants across their frontiers, growing nationalism in many of these countries, and a dawning recognition that well-constructed and administered borders can do more to promote good ties than the absence of such institutions, however, are convincing ever more governments across the region to move to improve border security.

But because the only border model many of these regimes are familiar with is the Soviet one, there is a growing risk that efforts to improve border controls in some of these countries could lead to the resuscitation of one of the worst features of the USSR -- even as those involved in this process deny to themselves and to others that that is what they have in mind.