Quite a spy thriller, this
It feels just like a Soviet-era affair. Moscow and London are trading Cold War-style insults amid lurid revelations of British espionage on a grand scale, including alleged financing of Russian dissidents to undermine the Kremlin.
Russian TV broke word of the spy drama a week ago, and it has dominated the evening news shows ever since. The story, authored by the Russian FSB security service, has all the cloak-and-dagger tension, exotic gadgetry, of a James Bond thriller. It involves a fake rock packed with hi-tech computer gear, planted in a Moscow park by the British Special Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, to serve as an electronic 'dead letter drop' for the agency's Russian recruits. For weeks the FSB watched the suspicious stone with hidden cameras, which caught alleged Russian spies uploading secret data into the rock using palm-held computers. At least 4 British embassy staffers were later filmed retrieving the info in the same fashion. In one videotaped scene a diplomat kicks the rock, which had apparently malfunctioned; in another a British spook carries it away for maintenance.
But the tale veers ominously away from standard Cold War spy-versus-spy hijinks with the FSB's insistence on a direct link between the alleged MI6 espionage and the British Foreign Office's approximately $1-million annual support for Russian non-governmental groups. Sergei Ignatchenko, the FSB spokesman, showed documents on TV suggesting that one of the British diplomats caught on tape, political secretary Marc Doe, had also authorised payments for 12 Russian NGO's under the British government's Global Opportunities Fund. Recipients include Russia's oldest human rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group, as well as the Eurasia Foundation and the Committee Against Torture.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to comment on the espionage allegations, and tried to pass the affair off as a sort of joke. The Foreign Office indignantly defended the propriety of its aid programmes to Russia, which are administered by the British embassy in Moscow, but otherwise declined to discuss any specifics of the case.
Marc Doe had worked for the British embassy primarily as a liason with Russian civil society groups, experts say. If the FSB's allegations that he was also involved in espionage are true it suggests, at the very least, a reckless and callous attitude on the part of British intelligence. There is nothing in principle wrong with the British government's assistance to Russian NGO's, but why on Earth would they send an MI6 operative to meet with civil society activists and sign their cheques? Russian human rights workers are vulnerable enough to political pressures, without having this kind of problem hung around their necks. At worst, Doe might have been using his access to Russian NGO's as a way to recruit new agents. Whatever the British government might have thought it was doing, that kind of move can only hurt grassroots civil society development in this country.
In an interview last year FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev warned that foreign espionage activity against Russia was on the increase, and that NGO's are frequently used as "vehicles" for spy services. The British, in their carelessness, have helped to make that appear to be true in the minds of millions of Russians.
The scandal comes barely two weeks after President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial law that creates a new state agency to scrutinize the activities and funding of NGO's, with the power to close down those deemed not to be working according to their stated goals. The bill was prepared in response to official concerns, expressed several times by Putin, that foreign-funded NGO's were engaging in "political activities" aimed at undermining Russia. The appearance of this spy scandal at such a moment cannot be pure coincidence. Many experts believe the spy story has been brought out and publicised just now in order to provide a pretext for a crackdown on many of those groups, particularly those who receive foreign funding or whose work puts them into a critical position vis a vis Russian authorities.
Most of the groups named by the FSB have issued angry denials, insisting their work is open, legal and transparent. But the affair has sent a collective shudder through much of Russia's NGO community where many fear the new law, which comes into effect in April, will be used against them. Indeed, it does seem that critical and independent NGO's are next on the Kremlin's list of unruly social forces to tame. We've already seen the media, big business and opposition political parties turned from tigers into pussy cats by Putin's policies of "managed democracy". The question is, where will it end?
(Dr Shaumian is Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Moscow)