Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Secrecy Rules Violate Spirit of Jackson-Vanik

With his dandy silk tie and a job in an international electronics firm, Mikhail Laktyushkin can be considered much luckier than many other Soviet scientists, who failed to make a prosperous transition to the market economy.

But unlike most Russians with a salary as handsome as his, Laktyushkin cannot vacation with his family in Cyprus or Spain, cannot attend the international seminars to which his firm would like to send him or even visit his employer's European offices -- all because of classified information he last saw 10 years ago.

Laktyushkin is one of several hundred scientists, military officers, engineers and other specialists who try each year to overcome travel restrictions imposed by their former employers because of access they have had to sensitive information -- travel restrictions that, according to human rights advocates, violate Russia's obligations to the Council of Europe and contradict the spirit of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which U.S. President George W. Bush has urged Congress to lift.

"It's quite nonsensical. In Soviet times we were forbidden to have contacts with foreigners. But now I work with foreigners. If I wanted to reveal something, I could have done it years ago," Laktyushkin said in an interview Thursday.

Security officials discount this logic.

"Contacts with foreigners do not mean the same thing as contacts with foreign intelligence agencies," said Mikhail Grishankov, a member of the State Duma's security committee and a former officer of the Federal Security Service. "When a person travels abroad and [foreign] intelligence agencies know who's coming their way, they will work hard to work that person over."

During the Cold War, the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the United States' 1974 Trade Act linked the Soviet Union's trade status to restrictions on emigration by Jews and other religious minorities. In the standoff between the "free West" and the "evil empire," the law became an important tool for pressuring Moscow on human rights issues.

"But the issue of Jewish migration is no longer relevant. Travel restrictions now affect a different population -- those who allegedly have had access to secret information," according to Leonid Paperno, head of the nongovernment group Movement Without Frontiers, which advises so-called secrecy refuseniks and helped draft parts of a 1996 law on entering and leaving Russia.

Under that law, people who have worked with classified data, which have four degrees of secrecy, can be banned from traveling outside Russia for up to five years, with the possibility of another five-year extension. Such restrictions are imposed by local OVIRs -- the visa and registration departments responsible for issuing foreign travel passports -- on the basis of recommendations from employers and security agencies. The law does not explicitly link the duration of the travel ban with the degree of secrecy of the data in question.

Paperno complained that the current system of travel restrictions renders people vulnerable to arbitrary decisions by their superiors or security officers, whose motives can include personal antipathy or paranoia rather than genuine security concerns. Paperno also said the classified status of most documents is not re-evaluated on a regular basis, as it should be.

Laktyushkin, a 42-year-old radar technology specialist, believes his case falls in this category.

From 1979 until 1993, Laktyushkin worked with the Almaz construction bureau, a leading developer of anti-aircraft missile systems. His security access upon leaving there was level two, the second highest, and, according to court documents, the last time he worked with confidential materials was November 1992.

Several years later, Laktyushkin applied for a foreign travel passport. The local OVIR denied his request and set a travel ban slightly over five years, he said. After the passage of the 1996 law that set a maximum five-year limit for initial travel bans, Laktyushkin appealed the decision to the interagency commission responsible for reviewing such cases. The commission, which functions under the Foreign Ministry, reduced his restriction to exactly five years, expiring in November 1997. At this time, Laktyushkin once again applied for a passport and, once again, his request was denied and his foreign travel restriction was extended to 10 years.

Armed with the interagency commission's decision, Laktyushkin went directly to court. After a year and a half of bureaucratic rigamarole, the Moscow City Court accepted his complaint in May 1999 but ruled that the case would not be considered because Laktyushkin had not applied a second time to the interagency commission.

Laktyushkin appealed to the Supreme Court, and on Aug. 3, 1999, it ruled in his favor. But his request for a passport was once again denied.

When he appealed to the Supreme Court a second time in October 2000, the ruling was not in his favor. The court argued that Laktyushkin had agreed to the travel ban when he went to work at Almaz.

Under the 1996 law on entering and leaving Russia, people with access to classified information must give their written consent to possible travel restrictions in a formal contract. The court ruling says that, since Laktyushkin left Almaz before the law came into effect, this provision cannot apply to him and he is bound by a standard paper that he signed agreeing to foreign travel restrictions and vowing not to reveal any classified information to which he had access. However, Laktyushkin said this paper -- which is in his file but not in his possession -- explicitly states the restriction is valid only for the term of his employment.

Paperno said that two of the problems with such papers, and even the contracts mandatory under the 1996 law, is that people with access to classified information often sign blank contracts that are filled in later and that they rarely receive their own copies of the contracts.

A Foreign Ministry official familiar with the work of the interagency commission could not comment on Laktyushkin's case specifically. While he acknowledged that employers and security agencies can be overzealous, he said such cases are less and less common.

"People know that the commission exists and that it tries to ... do battle with those violations that have arisen in the past, when some travel restrictions were unfounded. Such incidents are less and less common now," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official also said that the number of appeals to the commission has been dropping each year -- another sign that the problem of secrecy refuseniks is abating.

According to Paperno's statistics, which he gets from the commission, more than 2,576 people who were denied foreign travel passports because of their one-time access to secret information appealed to the commission from 1995 to 2001. Of those, more than 2,128 -- more than 80 percent -- received the commission's approval for foreign travel. The peak year was 1997, when 524 people applied, and the number has been dropping ever since, with 244 applicants last year and 65 in the first four months of 2002.

In calling for Russia's graduation from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, Washington has not closed its eyes to this phenomenon, but does not consider it a significant problem.

"The only emigration restrictions that remain today in Russia relate to those who have had access to state secrets," Alan Larson, the U.S. under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, said in April, while trying to whip up congressional support for lifting Jackson-Vanik. "This law, however, has been applied only in a small number of cases. Moreover, Russian legislation provides for an appellate process; that process has found in favor of the emigre in the large majority of cases."

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate signaled its willingness to waive Jackson-Vanik, but with some reservations, Reuters reported. The chamber adopted a nonbinding resolution calling for the United States to establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia "in an appropriate and timely fashion." But Joseph Biden, a Delaware senator whose state is a major chicken producer, said he would not support a waiver until Russia fully lifts a ban on U.S. poultry imports.

When Russia was preparing to enter the Council of Europe, one of the conditions was that Moscow immediately "cease to restrict ... international travel of persons aware of state secrets, with the exception of those restrictions which are generally accepted in Council of Europe member states."

Paperno argued that Russia's restrictions contradict European norms because secrecy regulations are not transparent and, in practice, people are not allowed to make a conscious choice about whether or not they are willing to accept such restrictions.

Duma Deputy and former FSB agent and Grishankov disagreed, saying Russia's practice is very similar to international and European norms.

However, Margot Light, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said she knew of no travel restrictions comparable to those applied in Russia in any European country.

"It seems to me that in the case of the Russian Federation, we really are now seeing a throwback, a kind of reversion to an old Soviet practice -- particularly because the definition of what is secret information in Russia is so unspecific and open to various interpretations depending on who's doing the interpreting," Light said by telephone from London.

Paperno and Laktyushkin agreed that any bureaucratic machine, especially one as unwieldy as the Soviet system, changes very slowly and painfully.

"Meanwhile," Laktyushkin said, "I'm just worried that November will roll around and, once again, I'll be denied a passport. ... The most painful aspect of this is to feel like a prisoner in my own country."