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Unlikely Pirates: The 'Arctic Sea' Mystery's Estonia Link

A Russian serviceman escorts one of the eight suspected hijackers of the "Arctic Sea" cargo ship in Cape Verde.
A Russian serviceman escorts one of the eight suspected hijackers of the "Arctic Sea" cargo ship in Cape Verde.
TALLINN -- Nearly two decades after the end of communism lifted the Iron Curtain from this tiny former Soviet republic, tourists from around the world stream to the capital's beautifully preserved medieval old town.

Outside the old fortress walls, glass towers and minimalist interiors symbolize the new postmodern sensibilities of a country that gave the world Skype, the Internet communications site that still maintains its headquarters here.

But despite appearances in this Baltic Sea country, Estonia's new membership of the European Union and NATO hasn't enabled it to escape the lingering shadow of its massive neighbor to the east.

The latest reminder came last summer. When Moscow arrested six Russians from Tallinn on charges of hijacking a missing cargo ship, Estonia was drawn into an international mystery that prompted speculation about a secret sale of Russian weapons to the Middle East.

Now Estonians are wondering whether their country's large and largely disenfranchised Russian minority is capable of producing the first modern-day pirates to seize a ship in European waters. Or whether innocent men were framed, possibly to target their country for political reasons.

Lost Generation

Twenty minutes outside its fairytale center, Tallinn shows a very different face: a gray sprawl of the concrete-slab apartment buildings you see throughout the former Soviet Union. It's in such a neighborhood called Lasnamae that six friends and acquaintances accused of hijacking a ship sailing from neighboring Finland grew up. All are now in a Moscow prison facing more than 20 years in jail on charges of kidnapping and piracy.

Many Estonians believe the allegations, saying the suspected hijackers probably belong to one of the Russian organized criminal groups that flourished smuggling metals and oil through Tallinn in the 1990s. But people in the Russian community who know the men dismiss the allegations as absurd. They say the alleged hijackers are ordinary layabouts, petty criminals and heavy drinkers who couldn't possibly have been capable of pulling off a major international heist on the high seas.

Tatyana Barteneva's son Dmitry Bartenev is one of the men on trial in Moscow. Inside the tidy, cramped apartment she shared until recently with both her two grown sons, the 63-year-old nurse with a blond bob hairstyle defends Bartenev and the other alleged hijackers as the victims of a plot they didn't understand.

"I don't think they're such idiots as to pick a fight with Russia," she says. "Why would they need that?"

Barteneva has lived in Tallinn since the age of 9, when her father, a Soviet military officer, was posted here in the 1950s. Her late husband was the captain of a fishing trawler, and their son Dmitry took odd jobs at sea.

Tallinn's Lasmanae neighborhood, the home of many ethnic Russians
According to his brother Aleksei Bartenev, Dmitry was unemployed last March when he noticed a leaflet outside a local supermarket advertising security work in Spain. A big man with prominent features and a crew-cut, the 42-year-old sometime sailor was on probation for drunk driving. He described the job to several of his friends, who jumped at the chance to travel abroad for pay.

The men shared similar backgrounds. Born in Estonia, all but one never met the tough requirements for Estonian citizenship. Locals say Bartenev and others like him are part of a lost generation of former Soviets who were unprepared to make it in what became a new country after the communist collapse. Schemes aimed at making a fortune in Estonia's new free market in the 1990s gave way to getting by on temporary jobs and trouble with the law.

One of the alleged hijackers recently completed a prison sentence for killing a man during a bar fight. Another had served time for attempting to set the door of his ex-wife's apartment on fire.

Accusations Of Discrimination

Lasnamae, with its mowed lawns and flowers, is far more attractive than many similar neighborhoods in Russia. But the feeling of exclusion from mainstream Estonian society among the many Russians who live here weighs heavily. A wife of one of the alleged hijackers says nothing good ever happens in Lasnamae: "All you get here is grayness and squalor, that's it."

Resentments between Estonians and Russians run deep. Part of the Russian tsarist empire for centuries, Estonia was briefly independent following World War I, until the 1938 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany gave control over Estonia back to Moscow. During 40 years under Soviet rule, hundreds of thousands were deported and tens of thousands sent to the gulag.

Russia says it liberated Estonia from German occupation in World War II. But Estonians say Moscow is trying to rewrite history by denying the Soviet occupation of their country. Although Russian language echoes on Tallinn's streets today, there's a thinly veiled resentment among many Estonians of the presence of so many Russians in their country.

Human rights activist Aleksei Semyonov
Russians say that fuels discrimination: unemployment among the Russian population is twice as high as among Estonians. Human rights activist Aleksei Semyonov says such inequity threatens to help create a permanent underclass of ethnic Russians.

"The discrimination is an added burden on top of the already tough situation Russians face," he says. "And the government isn't helping. There's no understanding that we're part of one society, that if some of it begins to sink, sooner or later the rest will be dragged down too."

'Sucked Into A Plot'

The prospect of work in Spain offered Dmitry Bartenev welcome relief. After agreeing to take the job, he showed his brother a work contract. It was vague and written in English.

"My brother's the kind of person who doesn't bother with details," Aleksei Bartenev says. "Maybe it was a preliminary contract. But it appears that it actually was something else: that he was sucked into a plot by being offered a job that was described as completely different than what it turned out to be."

Bartenev says his brother's contact called himself Vladimir. In addition to the six Russians from Lasnamae, two men from Latvia signed up for the work he offered. Several of the men posted notices on a popular social-networking site saying they'd be away for several months. They told their families they'd be gone until early October.

When the men finally left Tallinn in a gray minivan late in the afternoon of July 16, neither Bartenev nor the other alleged hijackers whose families were interviewed for this report took their mobile phones with them. None of the relatives has had any direct contact with them since.

Tatyana Barteneva
A month later almost to the day, the Estonian police knocked on the Bartenevs' door with a search warrant. It was the first time Tatyana and Aleksei Bartenev had heard the name "Arctic Sea."

Then they couldn't stop hearing about it: in the following days, they saw footage of Bartenev and the other men from Lasnamae replayed on television. They were handcuffed and hustled ashore by Russian special forces troops in fatigues.

Aleksei Bartenev says the images put him in shock. "The worst I can imagine my brother doing is boarding the 'Arctic Sea' in the hope of entering Spain or another Western country illegally," he says. "We couldn't even imagine Dmitry could be among a group of alleged pirates. Even if he had a great imagination, he'd never agree to such an adventure as hijacking."

Mounting Questions

The rest of the world already knew about the "Arctic Sea." The story first captured international attention soon after the ship was said to have disappeared off the radar in July. Owned by a Finnish-based company and operating under a Maltese flag, the vessel was listed as carrying a cargo of timber worth $1.8 million to Algeria.

The Russian authorities say the ship was hijacked at gunpoint on July 24, and that it was found during a major search operation in August that included destroyers and nuclear submarines. Officials say the "Arctic Sea" was freed on August 17 after it was discovered off the west coast of Africa.

Questions had begun surfacing almost as soon as the ship was reported missing. Among the earliest and most insistent came from the editor of a Moscow-based maritime newsletter. Mikhail Voitenko questioned why pirates would risk seizing a relatively inexpensive cargo in one of Europe's busiest shipping lanes. He suggested the ship had been carrying a secret arms shipment as part of a private business deal by state officials. But little has been heard from Voitenko since he fled Russia last month, saying "serious people" had warned him to leave or face arrest.

The "Arctic Sea"
Voitenko's flight reinforced mounting speculation that the "Arctic Sea" may have been carrying sophisticated S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran or Syria. Suspicions were backed up by reports from Israel saying the "Arctic Sea" was initially intercepted by the Mossad intelligence service, and that the Israelis warned the Kremlin to stop the shipment -- or they would seize it themselves.

Critics of the official version say it's a cover meant to save the Kremlin embarrassment. They point to a visit to Moscow by Israeli President Shimon Peres the day after Moscow announced it had found the ship. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is also widely believed to have made an unprecedented secret trip to Russia.

Moscow has a long-standing deal to sell S-300 missiles to Tehran. But despite occasional reports from Iran that some have been delivered, international pressure appears to have forced the Kremlin to say it's put off shipping the weapons so far.

Political analyst Tom Gross says the Mossad is the most likely intelligence agency to intercept a Russian arms shipment to Iran, which Israel sees as its biggest threat. "We know Israel has good intelligence and that it's prepared to act in audacious ways," he says, adding that Israel's denial was made in a way that "doesn't make me think it didn't happen."

Fishy Story

Tarmo Kouts is the most prominent skeptic of the Russian version. The European Union's rapporteur on piracy is also a member of the Estonian parliament and a former admiral who served as the country's defense chief.

Sitting on a bench in a bucolic park behind Tallinn's baroque parliament building between legislative sessions, the well-dressed legislator with a close-cropped beard says Russia's behavior and the secrecy surrounding the "Arctic Sea" events raise serious suspicions the vessel may have been carrying weapons.

"Different experts from Russia found out that is quite a possible version," he says. "If it's coming from Russia, probably something is wrong."

Kouts' suspicions have provoked angry responses from Moscow, which has strenuously denied the accusations. But independent Russian military experts doubt the "Arctic Sea" was carrying S-300 missiles, saying the strategic missiles are part of a large and complex system that would have been extremely difficult to conceal on a relatively small ship.

Before leaving Finland, the "Arctic Sea" docked for repairs in the Russian Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, a notorious center for organized criminal groups and smuggling, where some believe a secret cargo may have been loaded. Weapons experts say many of Russia's export deals are notoriously opaque and often involve shady middlemen if not outright criminal groups.

But analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says the missiles would have had to occupy the vessel's deck and hull. "The Finnish port authorities say that when the ship arrived to get its payload of timber in Finland, the hull was empty and the deck was empty," he says. "We know that for sure. So that more or less rules it out just simply physically."

Irina Verenich says she warned her husband against taking the job.
Felgenhauer concedes the ship may have been carrying other weapons, such as X-55 cruise missiles, and says the Russians may even have floated an implausible story about S-300 missiles to distract attention from another cargo. "It's a very fishy story," he says.

After arresting the alleged hijackers, the Russian authorities said they would send the "Arctic Sea" to a Russian port for investigation. The head of Russia's Investigative Committee told a Russian newspaper "we don't rule out the possibility the ship was carrying more than timber," but has so far refused to disclose the contents of the vessel's cargo. Some believe the admission is significant, saying Moscow would have unambiguously denied the possibility had the "Arctic Sea" been carrying only timber.

Many other Russian actions have heightened skepticism about Moscow's role in the events. Military experts question why nuclear subs were part of the search operation, saying their presence would make sense only to discourage other ships from coming close. They also wonder why the eight alleged hijackers and some of the crew -- 16 people in all -- were flown to Russia on two large Ilyushin-76 cargo planes capable of carrying 40 tons each, if not also to ferry an illicit payload.

The "Arctic Sea," which has since been renamed, is now reported to be moored off the coast of Algeria, with the captain and three of his all-Russian crew still on board. Their family members' appeals to the Russian authorities to bring them home have been ignored.

But the four crew members have refused to speak to the media, as have the 12 others now back at their base in Russia's Far North port of Arkhangelsk. They're almost certainly under strict orders.

'They All Got On Well'

Only the alleged hijackers have told their side of what happened. It's far different from the Russian version. Dmitry Bartenev has testified that after leaving Tallinn, the members of his group were sent to the Estonian resort town of Parnu, where they were told they'd be training to conduct environmental work in a rubber motorboat, collecting waste from ships and filming their work on video.

Bartenev says the alleged hijackers navigated into the open sea a week later to test their GPS system. It was July 24, the day the Russian authorities say the "Arctic Sea" was hijacked. Aleksei Bartenev says his brother claims his boat was caught in bad weather that caused the GPS system to malfunction, leaving the men drifting at sea until their rescue by the "Arctic Sea."

According to Bartenev's Moscow lawyer Konstantin Baranovsky, Bartenev maintains that far from storming the ship with guns, he and the other men were greeted warmly by the ship's crew, who celebrated their rescue by drinking. "After that, they all got on well together until the ship was held up by a Russian military vessel," Baranovsky says.

Baranovsky was appointed to defend Bartenev by the Russian government, and says he can't judge whether his client is telling the truth. He says Bartenev instructed him not to disclose telling details such as his employer's name.

Tatyana Seleven
Back in Tallinn, the families of other alleged hijackers largely corroborate Bartenev's story. Tatyana Seleven, the wife of unemployed Igor Borisov, says he also told her he was leaving to work in Spain. Like the Bartenevs, Seleven found out about the "Arctic Sea" when police investigators knocked on her door.

Seleven dismisses accusations by the Russian authorities that the alleged hijackers were physically fit and trained for their operation. She says Borisov recently broke his arm, making him unable to use it. "He couldn't lift anything," she says. "And then they show on television that he helped hijack a ship. It's just physically impossible for him to have done that."

Seleven asks why the alleged hijackers were clean-shaven and appeared well-fed in the television footage, saying stress from holding the "Arctic Sea's" crew hostage surely would have left them looking more ragged.

Another alleged hijacker, Aleksei Andrushin -- an unemployed, 28-year-old construction worker -- told his wife before leaving Tallinn that he'd be helping service oil rigs at sea.

Sitting in a popular local bar called Zanzibar, where leopard-print seat pillows offer some visual relief from the uniform apartment blocks outside, Irina Verenich says she believes her husband's only mistake was to have trusted strangers.

"I told him so many times, 'What are you doing?'" she says. "I said, 'You help people you don't even know, and no one will help you in return.' And that's exactly what happened."

'No One Needs Us'

Like other members of the alleged hijackers' families, Verenich says she can't afford to travel to Moscow or otherwise help her husband in any significant way. She says Andrushin's first court-appointed lawyer in Moscow demanded 5,000 euros ($7,450) only to agree to participate in the case he was required to take up. But Verenich says the most difficult part of a situation she describes as utterly surreal is explaining Andrushin's absence to their 8-year-old daughter.

Nastya Strelkova
Andrushin's sister, Anastasia Strelkova, says reports from his new lawyer about his deteriorating health led her to believe her brother has been beaten in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. She criticizes the Estonian authorities for doing nothing to help him and the other stateless men holding "gray passports."

"No one needs us," she says. "Estonia isn't going to fight for them, and Russia doesn't need them. The fact that we were born here and our mother was born here doesn't matter to anyone."

In Moscow, the case is being heard in a jury trial in which all the alleged hijackers are represented by court-appointed lawyers. Aleksei Bartenev says the Russian authorities want to sentence the alleged hijackers as quickly as possible. He doesn't believe the trial will be fair, and is putting his hopes on an appeal of the expected guilty verdict to the European Court for Human Rights.

Many here wonder what gives Russia legal jurisdiction over a case involving a ship registered in Malta, owned by a company in Finland, and alleged to have been intercepted in Swedish waters. But there have been no answers to that and other questions.

Bartenev asks why the three weeks his brother and the other alleged hijackers are said to have controlled the "Arctic Sea" produced no record of negotiations or communications with officials or ship owners. "Surely hijackers would demand a ransom," he says.

Bartenev believes the Russian authorities framed his brother to harm Estonia's image as part of a geostrategic game. "If Russia's neighbor is producing pirates, it's very easy to say you need to send more navy ships to the Baltic Sea."

Whether or not Russians were selling weapons to the Middle East or elsewhere, the "Arctic Sea" is the latest international mystery to have fuelled conspiracy theories about intrigues at the highest level of politics. Kremlin critics say the fact that no one can prove them wrong reflects just how dangerous a place Russia has become.

The families of the eight men on trial for piracy say the highly unlikely hijackers are the biggest victims in the case. Few in Estonia believe there's any chance they'll soon return to Lasnamae.