Eastern European spies
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.