Resurgent KGB is winning back its old power in Russia Initials have changed, but methods are the same

November 17, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- It was a pre-dawn arrest typical of the old Soviet KGB.

Loud knocks at the door woke Capt. Alexander Nikitin and his family. Uniformed men stormed into the apartment. His wife tried to phone someone, but the line was cut off.

"Imagine how terrifying it was," said Nikitin's wife, Tatyana Y. Chernova, a thin woman who cannot quite keep the tension out of her voice.

"They wouldn't show us their I.D. But they said they were security police and were taking him for interrogation. And they said he'd be back soon."

Nine months later, Nikitin has still not come home.

The former Navy officer was arrested for contributing to a report by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona on how Russia's Northern Fleet handles nuclear waste from its submarines. He is awaiting trial on a charge of treason by espionage.

Nikitin's case has become the best-known of several court actions initiated during the past year, on weak charges, by the KGB's successor, the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Human rights workers are saying they see a trend: The former KGB is out to grab back its Soviet-era powers over citizens' deeds, words and thoughts as the democracy of the early 1990s seizes up.

"The Nikitin case is an attempt to get back part of their power. If he is found guilty, any person who works with foreign organizations will be under threat," said Boris P. Pustyntsev, head of the St. Petersburg rights group Citizens' Watch, which is monitoring the case.

To some observers, such statements smack of paranoia.

Former dissidents' long opposition to Soviet persecution left its mark -- on the earnest whispers of their conversation, on their tiny offices crammed with long photocopied petitions, and on their persistent suspicion that Big Brother is still watching them.

Most other Russians have come to feel free. Living in a bustling, advertisement-filled world, ordinary people are no longer shy about roundly denouncing their leaders in colorful language.

But liberals say that new freedom is gradually being eroded.

They say a confused new political system and a weak judiciary -- institutions that were supposed to become strong enough to protect Russians against any revival of the old-style secret police -- are in fact incapable of doing their job against a resurgent KGB.

In a burst of enthusiasm for democracy, the KGB's functions were dispersed among several agencies when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

But, since 1993, President Boris N. Yeltsin's initial agenda has been replaced by a tougher nationalism, and the KGB's successor agencies gradually have been reintegrated and put under direct presidential control.

The FSB, created in April 1995, had won back control of all intelligence-gathering by the beginning of this year.

Nikitin meanwhile makes occasional appearances at court hearings. At other times, he lives in a 6-square-yard cell in an FSB prison with another prisoners.

He and Bellona say the charge that he gave away state secrets from his days in the Northern Fleet at Murmansk is nonsense: All the information on actions involving nuclear submarines, which he provided in a 10-page section of the Bellona report, has been published by Russia's outspoken media.

The secret police, however, are not letting up.

In October, St. Petersburg officials seized 1,500 copies of the Bellona report -- even as a European Union envoy visited to investigate Nikitin's case.

Investigators have told Nikitin's lawyer, Yuri M. Schmidt, that the environmentalist will be tried not under normal Russian law but under secret Defense Ministry rules -- so secret that Nikitin cannot be told what they are.

In retaliation, Nikitin has refused to read the investigators' report and sign a protocol saying he has been provided with all the documents needed to prepare his defense -- the last step before the case can go to court.

For the moment, there is deadlock.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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