Scientists risk prosecution

February 2, 2007

Russian academics with foreign funding fear espionage charges, writes Vera Rich.

The Russian authorities' "indifference" towards science is driving scholars to seek Western funding, putting them at risk of charges of espionage, said Anatoly Lokot, a member of the Duma, in a recent interview for the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station.

His comment was sparked by the case of Oleg Korobeynichev, a laboratory chief at the Institute of Kinetics and Combustion of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is accused of passing data on solid rocket fuel to a research centre of the US Department of Defense.

Mr Lokot said there was no logic in the accusations. Professor Korobeynichev's contract with the Americans, he pointed out, dates back four years, a time when "the state had no intention of financing any scientific research work".

To keep research teams together and to continue working, scientists had to seek funding where they could, usually abroad. Under Boris Yeltsin's presidency, foreign funding was tolerated, even encouraged. The Government had little option: the salaries of academics and scientists were often months in arrears. Even when Professor Korobeynichev began working with the Americans, Mr Lokot said, "control over security matters (in Russia) was as weak as could be imagined".

Since then, although scientists' salaries remain low and the little existing state funding is focused on a few prestige establishments, the official attitude has changed. Now, scientists receiving foreign support are increasingly at risk.

Often the allegations take on bizarre overtones. Professor Korobeynichev, for example, faces charges connected not only to his own research. He is also accused of attempting to steal data from the Vektor Virology and Biotechnology Research Centre and from the Chkalov Aircraft Plant.

Anatoly Babkin was accused of giving the US classified data on the Shkval rocket-propelled torpedo - although the information was classified only seven years after he had left the job in question.

Oscar Kaibyshev, a metals physicist from Ufa who provided a South Korean firm with information on metallurgical information relating to disc castings for motor vehicles, received a six-year suspended sentence because, said Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the information could also be applied in rocket construction.

But Dr Kaibyshev asserts that no "dual-use" technology was involved and that his research was of a type specifically exempt from export controls.

In a further case, after a local court acquitted Valentin Danilov of the Krasnoyarsk Technological Institute of spying for China, the Russian Government appealed and the Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Dr Danilov received a 14- year prison sentence.

Although the high-profile cases have sparked protests from Russian human-rights campaigners, fellow academics have remained largely silent, possibly fearing similar charges.

And they may well have cause for fear. Last month, to mark the anniversary of the founding of the FSB's predecessor, the early Soviet Cheka, FSB chief Nikolay Patrushev claimed that foreign espionage activity in Russia is increasing - a statement that seems to herald a clampdown.

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