Russia captures a British spy, but economically pressed nation barely notices

March 02, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Russia wrote another page in the emerging post-Cold War spy thriller yesterday, revealing that it had captured a spy working here for Britain.

The development, startling because it came so soon after an angry United States accused Russia of spying on the CIA, attracted little attention in a nation immersed in a growing political and economic morass.

Russian anxiety yesterday was fixed on President Boris N. Yeltsin's reaction to the humiliating amnesty granted by parliament to his political foes. The president was seen as wounded, while his opponents were rushing to make political capital. A wave of strikes reminded that economic chaos threatened.

The spy was mentioned only briefly. The unnamed man was described as a Russian who was a high official in the defense industry.

In the best cloak-and-dagger tradition, he had allegedly been supplied with invisible ink and was paid to slip the British government secret military and economic information.

There was little comment and no outrage, in contrast to the high indignation from Washington when the FBI arrested Aldrich H. Ames, a mid-level CIA employee, a week ago and charged him with spying for Russia.

Politicians here perhaps were trying to teach Americans a lesson in post-Communist politics by refusing to express shock and disgust that one of their new democratic partners was spying on them. The spy reportedly started work only a year ago.

Instead, they were mostly preoccupied with the national melodrama, which offered several more twists of plot yesterday.

President Yeltsin, who had said nothing publicly since the leaders of the October revolt were freed Saturday, threatened to arrest them again if they made any false moves.

"In the case of the slightest repeat effort to destabilize the situation in the country," he said, "they will immediately be arrested."

But Mr. Yeltsin's supporters took the president's comments for bluster rather than strength, even though he asserted he was in full command.

"At this time, I don't see any danger to civic accord, and I fully control the social-political situation," he was quoted as saying at a meeting at the Kremlin with the speakers of the two houses of the Federal Assembly, or parliament. Mr. Yeltsin's failure to prevent parliament from granting the amnesty has eroded the president's moral authority and has fed a growing feeling that he is indecisive and losing political power.

In a poll published yesterday, he was the first presidential choice of only 19.9 percent of respondents; the next contender was the ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, who had 6.9 percent.

"The president is clearly getting feeble," wrote the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Close aides look helpless on television screens; the president demonstrates stupor."

The Communists, meanwhile, were busy assuming the image of reasonable peacemakers and open-minded leaders.

Gennady A. Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party, accused the democrats of refusing to work in the spirit of reconciliation.

"Certain quarters that are not interested in achieving civil peace have reacted to this decree in a hostile manner," he said.

Ivan P. Rybkin, the Communist who is speaker of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, defended the decision to grant amnesty as the only way to assure civil peace.

But while the politicians spoke of reconciliation, the economic fabric suffered another tear.

Workers at nearly 80 percent of the nation's coal mines went on strike, complaining the government owed them billions of rubles in back pay.

In Moscow, the ambulance service began a work-to-rule action, refusing to pick up corpses and threatening to fill out only half of any report.

Small wonder that the spy for Britain aroused little open concern. He was caught Jan. 15 and confessed Jan. 25, according to Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman for the Federal Counterintelligence Service, a successor to the KGB.

Nikolai Golushko, who was fired by President Yeltsin as head of the agency on Monday because he freed the amnestied prisoners with such alacrity, said the damage caused by the British spy "could be compared with the damage caused by [Col. Oleg] Penkovsky."

In the 1960s, Colonel Penkovsky provided information to the West from deep within the Kremlin power structure.

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