Since the Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the increased NATO military presence in the Baltic states, 20 of Baltic residents have been detained under suspicions of spying, mainly for Russia. For Latvia, the two are the first cases of espionage since the restoration of independence from the Soviet Union. Who are they and why so few?
On a freezing cold February day, Re:Baltica attended welding classes for the unemployed in the town of Jelgava, 50 kilometers (31 miles) south from the Latvian capital, Riga, in the hopes to meet Aleksandrs Krasnopjorovs. The 50-year-old former railroad employee, who used to work for the state-owned Latvian Railways (Latvijas Dzelzceļš, LDz), became the first person in Latvia accused of spying for Russia since the Baltic nation broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Security Police suspected Krasnopjorovs of spying since the summer of 2015. The authorities believe that Krasnopjorovs copied a videos of NATO military freight movements going through Jelgava from LDz CCTV cameras and passed them on to someone called Maksim Krotov, allegedly friend who lives in the Western Russian city of Kaliningrad. Both met at one of the informal reunions of the Soviet and Russian Army veterans. Krasnopjorovs served in Afghanistan in the 1980s while Krotov fought in the Russian break-away province of Chechnya in the 1990s.
Krasnopjorovs had access to video cameras because he was managing a group of 18 employees whose job was to repair 60-kilometer railroad tracks. He also sent lists containing non-standard train routes.
Immediately after his detention, Krasnopjorovs admitted the charges, but later recanted, saying that he was put under pressure by the Security Police. He admitted to sending videos and pictures, but he was simply sharing them with his former comrades-in-arms, who also went through wars, says Genādijs Ivankins, his defense lawyer. Ivankins said the law prevented him to provide more details, but he believes the evidence against his client is weak.
Whether this is true will be determined by the court, whose verdict is also keenly awaited by the intelligence services. This is the first spying case that reached the Latvian court over the last two decades and its decision will likely set the standards for future cases. But for now it looks like the case, which will be heard at the regional court behind closed doors on May 24, 2018, is on shaky grounds. Out of 24 initial counts of criminal activity only 14 remain in Krasnopjorov’s indictment (the prosecutor Zigrīda Meija declined Re:Baltica request for the interview).
In the beginning of January, 2018, the court unexpectedly decided to release Krasnopjorovs from the pre-trial detention, where he had spent more than a year. At the court hearing the man, suddenly free, was close to tears.
Who’s at fault?
In April 2016, the Latvian parliament amended the Criminal Code articles related to spying. The intelligence services at that time said that the outdated language of the law did not allow them to go after modern spies.
“One often hears a question: why can Estonia catch spies, Lithuania can catch spies, but Latvia cannot? I would like to say that to a large degree it is due to the shortcomings in the legislation,” the deputy head of the Latvian Security Police, Ints Ulmanis, told a joint parliamentary committee. He said that since 2010, the authorities had launched 6 criminal probes, which fizzled out due to the archaic legislation.
Less than six months after the amendments became the law, in November 2016, the intelligence services detained Krasnopjorovs.
It’s a lunch break at the welding class. Wearing a red winter coat with a fake fur collar, Krasnopjorovs smokes with other men near the entrance. Asked for a comment, he initially declines. Later curiosity gets the best of him and the man sits down in a school hallway for a chat.
Krasnopjorovs is a third-generation railroad worker. His grandfather, who arrived to Latvia from Russia following the country’s occupation by Soviet Union after Second World War, also worked at the railroad. His parents at that time were just children. Krasnopjorovs was born in Latvia and considers himself part of the Latvian state. He claims, however, to be a non-citizen of Latvia on principle.
After Latvia restored its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic state did not grant automatic citizenship to Soviet-era settlers and their descendants, giving them a status of non-citizen instead. If they want to obtain Latvian citizenship, they have to go through the naturalization process, which includes test on the Latvian language and history. Many non-citizens, some of whom were born in Latvia, resented the process because they thought it was unfair. As of 2017, 11 percent of the country population are non-citizens.
“I have worked here all my life, paid taxes, why do I need to take the [naturalization] test,” Krasnopjorovs says.
His friends and acquaintances describe him as “a doer” who does not like turning attention to himself. Sergejs Stoļarovs, a member of the Jelgava city council and the local leader of the party Harmony, which draws on support from the local Russian speakers, says Krasnopjorovs actively participated in street patrols few years ago, in support of a fight against the drug called spice. Krasnopjorovs also joined the local Harmony party at the behest and recommendation of Stoļarovs. “His biggest contribution was the membership dues. He has no political ambitions, he is interested only in his own life.”
Aleksandrs Gotovks, the leader of “Shuravi”, the local organization representing the Soviet veterans of the war in Afghanistan, declined the interview requests. After Krasnopjorovs’ arrest, the organization claimed the case was a political witch-hunt. It pled with Vladimir Linderman, a pro-Russian activist, for help. Linderman visited Krasnopjorovs in prison and spoke with media about him. Krasnopjorovs refused his help and asked “Shuravi” to stop its activities to prevent further publicity.
Krasnopjorovs is married with two kids. The oldest one is a first-year student, the youngest is in the elementary school. It was for family reasons that Krasnopjorovs asked the court to release him from detention, so that he would be able to support his family financially. Until the end of May, he will be attending classes for the unemployed, in the hopes to find a job. “One can always find a job, if one wants it,” he says.
Whether this will be possible depends on the court’s decision. Krasnopjorovs categorically denies he cooperated with the Russian intelligence services, but there is no logical explanation why he sent the pictures and information about the routes. He claims he did it at his own initiative and no one asked anything of him.Train routes several times? In his version: mistake because “letters were small on the phone screen. It was an accident”. He attends veteran reunions in Kaliningrad regularly as he treats them as inexpensive family holiday near the waters. “Someone got me because I bothered them. It was a political vendetta,” he says, failing to specify who might want to revenge him and for what. The only ideological statement Krasnopjorovs has uttered is that he hates the United States.
Since restoration of the independence Estonian intelligence services have arrested at least 14 people on charges of espionage for Russia, the most among the three Baltic states. Two people in Latvia and eight people in Lithuania have been arrested on similar charges in the same time period. In Lithuania, two were suspected of spying for neighbouring Belarus.
For years journalists have been asking intelligence services to comment why Latvia seems to fall behind its northern and southern neighbors, even though all three Baltic states find themselves on the external EU border and all three should be of interest to spies.
The intelligence services’ answers have never veered off the same two-point explanation.
First of all, the Latvian intelligence services claim they quietly expel alleged spies who work in the country under the diplomatic immunity. It cannot be independently verified because such information is a state secret.
Another reason is that Latvia, as a former Soviet republic, fired the former Soviet KGB members from the ranks of its own intelligence services early enough. “Often those who are detained in Estonia have past connections to the KGB. We don’t have such a situation because we isolated (them) from the beginning,” said the head of the parliamentary committee on national security, Inese Lībiņa-Egnere, from the ruling Unity party.
This explanation is not entirely true. The last five employees with links to the KGB left the Security Police only in 2000 when Latvia was invited to join the NATO military alliance. Since the restored independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, they also worked in other law enforcement agencies.
Two of the people convicted of the spying were related to the KGB in Estonia. Herman Simm, a former high-ranking official in the Estonian defence ministry who sold the secrets to Russia and is considered to be one of the most damaging spies in the recent NATO history, was KGB agent by his own admission. Vladimir Veitman, who had worked previously for the KGB as a technician and continued his work for the Estonian security service (KAPO) after the Baltic state restored its independence in 1991, was arrested in August 2013 and imprisoned for 15 years for spying for Russia.
Several sources within the Latvian intelligence services, who declined to provide their names because of their job specificity, blame a lack experience in collecting evidence for the small number of spies Latvians have managed to catch. Security Police has spent years collecting information and providing analysis, but it’s not enough to get a conviction in court.
Law not a hurdle
The Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 forced Latvia to increase counterintelligence activities. In 2015, all three security service agencies — the Constitution Protection Bureau, the Security Police and the Military Counterintelligence Service — concluded that Latvia’s laws were the weakest among the EU and NATO countries when it came to espionage and are outdated, as the last change was in 1999.
“The section on espionage was archaic. I don’t know how else to call it,” says the parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of the Interior Evita Siliņa. At first, the amendments sought a fine for disclosing classified information at the request of the foreign intelligence services “to be used against interests of Latvia.” It would mean that the prosecution would have to prove that the information collection took place at the request of a foreign intelligence service and how that information was used. “You must be a superstate security service to prove that. It was an unprovable section,” Siliņa said.
“The key is in the systemic approach, because one photo does not yet provide any key information,” says Inese Lībiņa-Egnere, an MP. “If it is filmed systematically, showing the calendar when these freight loads enter and go across Latvia — from that you can draw conclusions.”
The head of the Security Police in Latvia, Normunds Mežviets, says this is why the Russian intelligence service interest in “recruiting people has not diminished. The information provided by a person on the ground is the only way to verify initial information obtained through technical means.”
The Estonian prosecuting attorney’s experience confirms this. Compared to Latvia and Lithuania, in Estonia people who are caught collecting public information are not tried for spying, instead they are charged with a conspiracy against the state. This legislation was introduced after the Bronze Soldier incident in 2007, when young Russians staged riots in the Estonian capital in response to the government’s decision to remove a Soviet-era war memorial from the city center to a military cemetery.
“These are the people who participated in the operational work of the intelligence services of another state and took photos with specific people and facilities. They don’t seek state secrets, but at the same time, we see that what they do happens systematically,” the Estonian attorney general Lavly Perling told Re:Baltica. “They are collecting information about workers, facilities, workplace routines. They are creating the information network.”
A farmer on the court docket
The next court hearing for Krasnopjorovs is set for May 24. The case has been delayed after it was revealed that Krasnopjorovs was taken out of custody by the Security Police to be questioned at their offices. It was not indicated in the case files. The Security Police claims that Krasnopjorovs was not taken for an interrogation, but “a chat” at his own request.
It is possible that the second spy case may reach the court in May, said Inese Zulte, the defense attorney. A farm owner who lives the Alūksne region near the border with Estonia and Russia stands accused of collecting open source information about what has been happening near the Latvian-Russian border at the request of Russian authorities. Unlike Krasnopjorovs, he has confessed to his crime.
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This story is the part of the series supported by the first EU-financed fund for investigative journalism IJ4EU.
Author Inga Spriņģe, Re:Baltica
Editor Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Photos and illustrations Lote Lārmane, Re:Baltica
Holger Roonemaa and Šarūnas Čerņiauskas contributed to the story.
Translated to English by Aleksejs Tapiņš
Translated to Russian by Jara Sizova
Read the first part in the series: How smuggler helped Russia to catch Estonian officer