Wednesday, December 20, 2006

spy stories

Eastern European spies

State insecurity

Dec 19th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Spy scandals in eastern Europe reveal some damaging hang-ups

WHEN spooks start mattering, democrats start worrying. Eastern Europe has shed the planned economy and one-party rule. But the intelligence and security services still have disproportionate influence. Indeed, it seems to be growing.

In Poland reform of the military-intelligence agency, the WSI, has been the main achievement—critics would say the sole one—of the government in the past year. A commission charged with the job claims that the WSI was actively involved in influencing the media and business (particularly arms-trading and property), as well as government itself. The WSI has now been broken up into a military-intelligence and a counter-intelligence service. Some 300 Soviet-trained officers have been fired.

Across the border in Lithuania another scandal is blazing in the security service, the VSD. A top Lithuanian spy posted to Belarus, Vytautas Pociunas, was found dead in mysterious circumstances—an event that some link to feuds within the VSD over freight contracts. A muck-racking newspaper which published supposedly inside information about the VSD was raided. A parliamentary committee wants the VSD chief, Arvydas Pocius, to go. He has suspended his service's two top counter-intelligence officers, claiming that they “pose a threat to national security”.

Making sense of all this is hard. But one thread stretches back to the removal in 2004 of Rolandas Paksas, a president whose unfortunate choice of friends led Lithuania's allies to worry about the country's future. Mr Paksas was impeached after the then VSD boss, Mecys Laurinkus, told Lithuania's parliament about the president's Russian-related antics. That success may have made the VSD big-headed.

It is hard to find an ex-communist country in eastern Europe in which the intelligence and security services are depoliticised and uncontroversial. In Bulgaria the director of the department responsible for secret communist-era archives, which lawmakers have voted to open, was found dead at his desk in November, shot with his own gun. The authorities' delay in announcing the death, which leaked out in Brussels, prompted accusations of a cover-up. Two other senior figures committed suicide in October.

Romania's communist-era Securitate has proved the most pervasive and resilient, with extensive business and political connections. President Trajan Basescu recently sacked his intelligence chiefs in a row over the escape of a suspected triple agent who was also an arms-dealer and kidnapper (just another dull day in the Balkans). The president's critics wonder how, in communist times, he wangled a plum job abroad, in Antwerp, without help and encouragement from his or a foreign-intelligence service, something over which the files are oddly silent.

A common feature here is the weakness of eastern Europe's politicians and public institutions, which often fail to counteract the influence of those linked to the past. The old regimes of eastern Europe did not disappear in a sea of flags and euphoria in 1989. Many senior figures relabelled themselves, their money and their power—and are still doing nicely under the new system. It helps that decades of totalitarian rule leave people easily spooked. Few believe that the men in raincoats are under proper legal and political control.

One answer may be to start from scratch, with new recruits, something that Poland is now considering. Estonia, whose small, British-trained intelligence service is widely seen as one of the best in eastern Europe, did this in 1992. It also has a rule that politicians must never be spied on. “Such cases are for the voters to judge,” explains an official, sternly.


oulematu said...

The author probably has a point here since no one wants to publicly comment on this article.

On the other hand, the surveillance and intelligence practises on the U.S. are also not an example of squeaky clean.

oulematu said...

On a related note, the judicial systems of certain Eastern European countries are still infested with Communist-appointed judges.

Among other things, it is shocking that people that were sentenced by the totalitarian judiciary in absentia on fabricated or highly skewed charges have never been given an opportunity to clear themselves in a fair trial and are, instead, treated as criminals.

I'm referring, for example, to the retrial of Rostislav Roztocil in the Czech Republic who has been recently sent into pre-trial custody by a communist judge although he never received a fair trial and gave himself in voluntarily to the Czech authorities (after the Austrian and German authorities refused to extradite him or did so only subject to certain conditions and guarantees).

Unfortunately, these human rights abuses do not get much attention in English-speaking media or in the EU.

Praguetory said...

Hi there, just had your blog recommended to me on 18 Doughty Street by the chap who writes Cicero's Songs. Feel free to pay a visit to my blog some time. I flit in and out of covering Eastern Europe, but I enjoy this blog of yours and suspect I will become a regular visitor.