APS News

Russia Lifts Restrictions but Persecutions Continue

By Richard M. Todaro

Recent critical media attention and pressure from scientific organizations abroad have prompted the Russian Academy of Sciences to back off a controversial directive issued in May requiring all its researchers to report all contacts with foreign scientists.

The academy's governing presidium decided on June 19th to rescind the order and replace it with a much less sweeping one dealing only with "secret" programs, but that decision was not made public until July.

Nevertheless, critics contend that the Russian government is persecuting increasing numbers of scientists and environmental activists by using arbitrary definitions of what constitutes a state secret. They point to a number of cases in which treason charges were leveled against individuals who have been detained for months while awaiting trial.

As reported in the June 8, 2001 Science, the initial Russian Academy of Sciences directive required "constant control" over all aspects of cooperation between Russian scientists and their foreign colleagues. All 55,000 researchers at all 357 academy institutes were required to file detailed reports on any international activities, including sending articles abroad for publication, applying for international grants, traveling to international conferences, and hosting foreign colleagues.

The move was ostensibly an effort to protect state secrets, but critics charged that it was nothing more than a revival of Soviet-era authoritarian rule under the Federal Security Service. Known by its Russian abbreviation FSB, it is the internal state security service and direct successor of the old KGB. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin served as a high-level KGB official in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The presidium directive triggered alarm among scientists abroad and, to a lesser extent, in Russia itself. It also prompted a warning from financier billionaire George Soros that he would halt his multi-million dollar philanthropic and business activities in Russia.

"I feel it very personally because, I've spent well over $100 million in supporting Russian science, and I would certainly not have been either willing or able to do it if such an order had been in existence," Soros said at a news conference in Moscow in June, as reported by the Associated Press.

The new directive, as reported in the August 10, 2001 Science, merely requires scientists to inform their supervisors in writing about any foreign activities.

The United States government, which had taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the May directive, accepted the academy's explanation that it had indeed replaced the initial resolution with a much less restrictive one dealing only with "secret programs."

"They realized it was causing an outcry and they repealed the decision, but they made a distinction between people who work on secret programs and people who work on non-secret programs," said Norman Neureiter, the science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State. "Otherwise, it has been repealed, and only five percent of the people in the Russian Academy of Sciences work in such secret programs."

Neureiter said that academy vice president Nikolay Pavlovich Laverov had personally "sought to reassure us absolutely that it wasn't a crackdown on academic freedom."

Critics like Daniel Mattis, a professor of physics at the University of Utah and chair of the APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, were not impressed with the new directive's secret and non-secret distinction. "A secret is whatever they want to say it is," he said.

Mattis pointed to the case of Valentin Danilov, the head of the Thermo-Physics Center at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, who was arrested and jailed in February and subsequently charged in April on charges of selling state secrets to a Chinese company.

As Mattis outlined in a letter to Physics Today (August 2001), Danilov was the signatory on a legal contract between his university and a Chinese company on a project that used information declassified by the Russian government in 1992 and that had been available in various, public forums.

"Danilov had taken material from public sources, and now he is languishing between life and death," Mattis said, referring to Danilov's reportedly seriously ill condition following a heart attack in June.

Mattis said that anyone who has fallen afoul of the authorities can be arbitrarily charged. "There are people who have been jailed because they've published in foreign articles things about pollution in Russia, and they've been accused of espionage. They are not violating any laws," he said.

Another case he cited is that of Igor Sutyagin, a physicist and historian who studied military-civilian relations in Russia and other post-Communist countries. Sutyagin was arrested and imprisoned in October 1999 on charges of high treason and espionage for allegedly passing on classified information to foreign intelligence services.

Mattis said that as in Danilov's case, Sutyagin used materials that were public and had already been published.

"Materials during this research were reportedly taken from articles published in the Russian press [and] there has been no proof from the FSB - or any other credible source - to substantiate this accusation," Mattis wrote to President Putin in a letter dated July 25th.

And Mattis noted that even if an individual is eventually acquitted - as was the case with Alexandr Nikitin, an environmentalist accused of divulging state secrets while protesting nuclear plant and submarine safety - it can still carry a very high price.

"You can be prosecuted and exonerated, but what good does it do you if you've been in jail for four years?"

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette