Interviews

LEONID FITUNI

LEONID FITUNI is the Director of the Center for Strategic and Global Studies in Moscow. His areas of expertise include strategic and crisis issues, economic transition in the former Soviet Union, and nuclear proliferation and organized crime in Russia. He is currently an advisor to the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations of the Russian Federation.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: You have pointed out that so far there are no Russians in jail for smuggling nuclear materials, which is the story lots of people focus on. Given that, you said that you do have some concerns about the larger situation. Will you discuss those concerns with me?

FITUNI: Of course the dangerous thing is that on one hand, the population is impoverished, the deplorable state of our scientists who work in the nuclear industry, and on the other hand, the corruption of not necessarily all, but government officials who unfortunately interpret the notion of "market" in a very primitive way--even after five years of reforms. It's an opportunity to grab the money, run, and hide so that no one can catch you. Interpreting the market in this primitive way, people are ready to use any means to get huge amounts of money in one go and then disappear to spend the rest of their life in Hawaii, or somewhere else in the U.S., say in "little Odessa" in Brighton Beach. Now that's the real danger.

So, there are no officially registered cases of stealing nuclear materials intended for military use. The two times when theft did occur from guarded facilities, it didn't involve materials for nuclear use, but rather, for fuel. One of the cases happened in the North Fleet where highly enriched material was stolen (not for military use, but for fuel) although it wasn't highly enriched material, it wasn't taken from a nuclear warhead or any other military device. But it was taken from the fuel which is used in nuclear reactors. As far as military material or devices, or nuclear materials for military use are concerned, not one country has yet to say that they apprehended any Russian citizen or former citizen living in the U.S., who had this form of nuclear material in their possession. This is the situation right now.

At the same time, though, there were many cases officially reported in our press where people, either by not knowing or intentionally hoping to deceive their potential buyers, stole other radioactive materials from the workplace. (For instance, material enriched to a lesser degree, or not enriched at all.) There were lots of cases where people working in the defense industry stole metal objects that were radioactive from dump-sites, and passed them off to buyers as parts of a nuclear bomb. Such cases definitely happened. But in order to be fair, I would like to point out that the problem with controlling plutonium (which today is probably the central most dangerous radioactive material) is not only a problem for us, but for other countries. As you know, recently the U.S. Congress became interested in unaccounted-for plutonium, giving the Secretary of the Department of Energy many painful hours of trying to explain its disappearance. So this is a global problem.

I myself work in the Center for Strategic and Global Studies: I'm not a specialist in technical matters. I'm more interested in matters of safety and in questions concerning the social situation in the country and how it affects the nuclear problem - and finally the economic and criminal aspects -- to what extent if any, organized crime is involved in this issue, or maybe even government officials. If they are involved, is it sporadically or on a regular basis? I feel that these questions are much more important these days. The question of stability remained the focal point for our country during these last five years. And I wouldn't say that nowadays we have any more stability than in 1991, 1992, 1993.

Q: Many people have written about the question of organized crime and nuclear security. It seems to me that that's the wrong question, and I think you're saying that as well. It seems to me that the more important one is the one you touched on. If there were corruption somewhere at the top, in the government somewhere, at one institute, at one laboratory...is it possible to prevent some big sale, some big deal from happening?

FITUNI: This is a crucial question I'd say, both on a global level and for those who actually work on these problems. Because when you're dealing with corruption, there is another painful side. Government officials involved in corruption, are more afraid of the press, although the press in our country is maybe not that influential. When journalists investigate cases of corruption thoroughly and professionally, and with evidence, then the results are published. But then the consequences for the authors are very harsh because, unfortunately, our government doesn't have to answer to anyone.

Unfortunately, I can't give you any names, with the exception of those cases already published, for instance those cases concerning material stolen from research labs, or attempts to sell radioactive materials (or not radioactive, but connected with production of nuclear weapons, like the well-known story about stolen red-mercury) regardless of whether or not they were true. To a certain extent all these cases involved at least one, and sometimes several, high-ranking officials. As far as the case with the North Fleet is concerned, an official of the municipal government was under investigation. That means, the problem does exist and that, indeed, it is very real. The other side of the problem is that although the government is interested in unmasking and apprehending the perpetrators, the fact is that if the stealing involves government channels, the authorities often prefer not to reveal anything.

Investigations dealing with the corruption of high officials were made public by the president during his election campaign. He fired a number of accused officials. So, the problem exists and it's not made up. We cannot exclude the participation of corrupted officials in activities of this sort.

Q: Is it possible to describe in a simple way the nature of the corruption in the state bureaucracy, in general?

FITUNI: Generally speaking, today in Russia, we have perhaps one of the worst government arrangements in the history of government. Broadly, practically all the ministries are permeated with corruption. These are the abuse of power in order to become rich, and direct ties with the criminal world. These ties don't only exist on the lower and middle levels. They exist within many different levels of the branches of government: legislative and executive. I think that the judicial branch has also been affected.

Especially difficult situations exist in the remote provinces, because being far away from Moscow's at least minimal control, local administrators, whether they are heads of the local administration or representatives of Moscow, are as a rule uncontrollable and play the role of local tsars.

To look at the core of the issue and at what caused these problems, I'd like to return to the fact that all the processes that were taking place in Russia, perceived in the West as democratization, were taken over to a significant degree by opportunists (in a Western sense of the word, not the Marxist/Leninist sense). These people discovered that the country's situation was turning in their favor, and they could easily, without any authority from the government, amass an enormous amount of resources. And this is the root cause of the corruption.

Q: And what about corruption in the military and among former members of some of the security services.

FITUNI: This question is more complicated to answer because both organizations are closed now, due to their nature. But I can say confidently that at the very least, the military has also significantly suffered not from corruption in its pure form, but from characteristics typical not of an army, but of trade organizations. It's enough to say that some of our military districts have created their own banks which receive money from Moscow earmarked for its own needs. Naturally, these banks want to keep the money as long as they can in order to use it in all possible ways to earn interest, increasing the amount, a big part of which is given to the banks by the state, would be eaten up by inflation. All this is given out to officers and soldiers to buy provisions and necessary goods. And this is the reason for such awful occurrences as the deaths by starvation among our soldiers in the Far East, and other problems.

Q: And about the security services or the former members of the security services. Who guards the guards? Isn't that one of the big problems today?

FITUNI: The problem is that before the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was, in fact, one big special service called the KGB. This agency was responsible for everything, and it held a very high level of responsibility. In other words, if a member of the organization violated his duties and contract, or broke the moral code, he could face serious consequences-- even if he ended up somewhere in a foreign country.

The KGB performed this task by surveying those people who were cleared for working with military materials. Therefore, the agency could do its job without sophisticated electronic systems, complex technologies - although these technologies did exist at that time. The agency assumed that the people cleared for work in the facilities would not think of stealing these materials or of selling them to anyone. Their standard of living was, as a rule, higher than that of their colleagues in non-secret companies. These people used to have special privileges. But no more. Now, nuclear specialists are ordinary Russian scientists, and economically, scientists are in the worst situation among those who have work in today's Russia. As a result, the old methods of control don't work today.

We now have many quite efficient people in law enforcement - border guards, paratroopers, and so forth. Many of them now work for private security firms, and are either connected with or under the control of organized crime. Here we are dealing with the danger presented by people who underwent special training and who can use their exclusive knowledge, not for a noble cause - such as protecting humanity from nuclear threat - but with absolutely different goals.

It doesn't matter who steals the nuclear material - a former KGB colonel or a janitor. In my opinion, it's easier to deal with a theft implemented by specialists, because professionals usually follow schemes that could easily be solved by an investigator. Because the specialist would employ certain ways, say of looking for a buyer or of hiding certain material, and so on. But if the material is stolen by an amateur, or by an ordinary person who would carry the material in a shopping bag, and put it, say in the attic of his house, it would be practically unsolvable.

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