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The Globe and Mail (Canada)
December 29, 2001
Playing Russian roulette: the two faces of Moscow
By MARCUS GEE (mgee@globeandmail.ca)

Since Sept. 11, Russia has presented a new face to the West.

Gone is the bitter, peevish Russia that used to make friends with anti-Western governments, sell arms to rogue regimes and complain about U.S. bullying. In its place, we see the co-operative Russia, an ally in the war against terror.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call U.S. President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks to offer his help. A few weeks later, he was enjoying the comforts of Mr. Bush's Texas ranch. The two men seemed to get along famously.

The change has been so remarkable that some Kremlin watchers are talking about a historic Russian "tilt" to the West, a change that would bring Russia into the Western community of nations and finally heal the East-West rift that yawned so wide in the Cold War.

But Russia has another face -- the one it showed this week to Grigory Pasko. Mr. Pasko is a 40-year-old journalist and naval captain. In the mid-1990s, he was working for an armed forces newspaper when he found out that the Russian navy was dumping liquid nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan. He got a videotape of the dumping and handed it to a television network in Japan, where it caused a sensation.

Russian authorities arrested Mr. Pasko in 1997, claiming he had made two pages of notes at a meeting of naval officers and tried to give the information to the Japanese media. The charges: treason and espionage. This week, a court found him guilty of one of the original 10 counts -- "intending to transfer" the information -- and gave him four years in jail.

The judgment, like the trial, was a travesty, and it has been rightly condemned by human-rights groups both in Russia and abroad. Mr. Pasko was only doing his job as a journalist. Yet the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB, pursued him with zeal, refusing to say die even after lower courts threw out most of the charges.

Mr. Pasko is only the latest victim of the security service, which has prosecuted several scholars and journalists on what look like trumped-up espionage charges. Another, Igor Sutyagin, a researcher at Moscow's U.S.A.-Canada Institute who has done work for Canadian universities, was told this week he must stay behind bars even though a court found the charges against him to be weak and confused.

Cases such as these illustrate the two-faced nature of the Putin government. "Liberalism toward the West, a police state in Russia: this is the real nature of the Putin regime," Russian human-rights activist Lev Ponomarev said after the Pasko verdict.

Western countries are well aware of the contradiction, but they have been willing to overlook it since Sept. 11. Washington is especially grateful for Moscow's decision to allow U.S. forces to use bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In return, the Americans have softened their criticism of Russian brutality in Chechnya, the breakaway republic that has seen atrocity after atrocity by Russian forces.

The U.S. reasoning is easy to understand. The United States needs help if it is to beat international terrorism, and if getting it means keeping quiet about an ugly little war in Chechnya or a few persecuted journalists and scholars, it seems a small price to pay. Mr. Pasko doesn't count for much in the mighty struggle against Osama bin Laden.

But this may be a bad bargain in the end. Whatever Moscow may be saying and doing today, Russia will never really join the West until it learns the democratic habits and builds the democratic institutions that make the Western community what it is. Turning way from Russian misdeeds will only postpone that day.

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