Thousands of officials required to report trips to Russia

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Photo: Illustratsioon: Eero Barndõk

Already, thousands of state officials are required to report of intent to unofficially travel to Russia. Rather often, the journey is preceded by a conversation at Security Police (the Kapo), and occasionally followed by another talk once back home again.  

Up to now, the law laid no direct burden on officials with access to state secrets to report employers of trips to Russia. However, a bill to amend State Secrets and Classified Information of Foreign States Act that reached Riigikogu this December will set the restrictions in stone.

In reality, administrative agencies have already advised officials with state secret licences to avoid travelling to Russia if possible; if they really have to go, however, they must notify thereof.

In Defence League, the orders are stricter: according to public relations head Tanel Rütman, DL last year issued an advice not to visit Russia to active servicemen with state secret access, civil staff and part of the volunteers.

«If they still desire to do so, they need to file application to Defence League state secrets defence committee which will proceed the application and pass its assessment for decision by Commander of the Defence League.

According to second lieutenant Roland Murof at Defence Forces headquarters strategic communication department, Commander of the Defence Forces has not just issued an advice to avoid travelling to Russia, but to Belarus as well. Even before that, servicemen had to notify security service of all crossings of the border, including into Schengen states. Now, however, Russia is under keener scrutiny.

Harder for Russians

Above all, the notification obligation makes life somewhat cumbersome for officials of Russian nationality as till today many have relatives behind the Eastern border. Should the Riigikogu ratify the bill, travels to Russia will also need to be substantiated, though an explanation a la «to see my grandpa» will probably do. Even then, the state will secure itself a rather thorough overview of Russia-related interests of its officials and the possible risks related to that.

No direct penalty is prescribed for breaching the obligation to report; instead, the state my simply strip such officials from right to access to state secret or classified information of foreign states.

Russia in its turn, has gone to the other extreme when it comes to curbing some officialdom’s travel rights – to our knowledge, there’s no law yet, but employees are simply stripped of travel passports, especially those at law enforcement etc.

There being thousands in Estonia dealing with state secrets at various levels, and the law would apply to them all. As an example, Police and Border Guard Board has its data collection and exchange environment KAIRI. Of its content, a part is sure to be state secret and thus related to hundreds of staff.

Of active servicemen, lion’s share will come into contact with state secrets and/or classified information of foreign states anyhow, to say nothing about defence ministry. Even at interior and justice ministries, lots of officials come in contact with state secrets, and surely some at the culture ministry for instance.

A more powerful protection of state secrets has been necessitated by the spy scandals of late, as well as the crisis in Ukraine which has drawn an ever keener Russian intelligence interest towards what goes on in Estonia. The state is trying to avoid our officials being recruited while in the neighbouring country. The Kapo website even features a separate section of advice on how to behave when suspecting a recruitment attempt while in a foreign country. 

This covers everything from friendly «snuggling up» to threats, unfounded arrest or fabricated crimes – like «discovering» drugs dropped into a person’s bag. Pursuant to the bill, an official will first notify a certain employee at the ministry, say, and thereafter he may be directed to a preventive talk at the Kapo aimed at reducing the risk of the person being recruited. When it comes to the talks once back home, however, the aim may be our spies interested in what is going on at the neighbours, the mood and the atmosphere over there.

Aggressive recruiting

According to Kapo press rep Harrys Puusepp, there is a fresh frequency and aggressiveness to recruitment attempts by Russian intelligence of late. «We cannot quite openly dissect the latest examples, but we definitely had some such cases last year as well,» he said.

Therefore, the Kapo is indeed conducting conversations with some state-secret-accessing officials prior to them travelling to Russia. «This is needed to mitigate certain risks,» he said. «These are preventive measures, mainly to attempts by Russian intelligence to threaten Estonian state secret.»

As assured by interior ministry domestic security policy vice chancellor Erkki Koort, the people who come in contact with state secret indeed are in the thousands. Sure enough, these especially abound among servicemen. «It’s important that the officials be not endangered while abroad, and for the state to know where such people are visiting who are dealing with information sensitive for state and society,» said Mr Koort.

According to Mr Koort, even before the corresponding bill is deliberated at Riigikogu, officials are already reporting their trips to Russia.

Mr Koort said the list on those with reporting obligation is yet to be completed. «The list will have to be imposed in case the Riigikogu indeed ratifies the bill,» he added. «It doesn’t take too much fantasy to think of some states where, while visiting, people might become a target.»

At that, they aren’t just talking about Russia and Belarus. «There’ll be some other states added – for us, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia are parts of Georgia, but these aren’t under Georgian central government control.»

According to Mr Koort, Estonian law laid down various levels of state secret. «In very many countries that isn’t the case – there, it simply says that state secret is any information that may damage national security. And that’s all,» he said. By the amendment, a large part of information related to operations of Estonian Information System Authority will be turned into state secret as well.

In the world of the spies, lots of the classic recruitment methods are still in use. «People may not be aware of that and may think that they’ll be able to outwit the other side leaving Estonian authorities un-notified,» said Mr Koort.

«Meanwhile, they may get themselves in a mess resulting in lots of damage. Sadly, Estonia also finds itself on the frontlines of the world of the spies, as at the other side of the border there lies a country that follows rules somewhat different. We must protect our people and ensure that they will not find themselves in a situation where they may be recruited or have force applied to them.»

The vice chancellor added that at times officials may not be aware that the information at their disposal may be of lively interest to intelligence of a foreign state. «In such cases, they are warned: if you go, this may cause problems and in the foreign state we can no longer help,» related Mr Koort.

Mr Koort underlined that state secret does not belong to an individual or the agency he works for; it belongs to the Republic of Estonia. «We cannot afford the information falling into wrong hands.»


Kapo advice for recruiting attempt

How to behave if, while travelling, problems occur with law enforcement authorities or intelligence of a foreign state?

  • Before the journey, find out if in the country of destination one needs to get registered in the migration or law enforcement agency. Fulfilling all necessary requirements helps avoid legal ways of having you detained.
  • To contact you, intelligence may warmly offer opportunities to talk on «shared» subjects. Meanwhile, there have been cases of Estonian citizens brutally threatened, taken to militia or police stations (problems with documents or other such pretexts), or unfoundedly arrested (as related to alleged crime committed).
  • To sway people into cooperation, crimes may also be fabricated (like when drugs are found with a person, imprisonment may follow). In return for becoming an agent, they kindly offer to withdraw the charge. Otherwise, however, they will immediately invite impartial observers as in your suitcase in the other room illegal drugs have been discovered.
  • If running in to problems with law enforcement while abroad, stay calm and thy to follow certain rules of behaviour (Postimees offers a small selection):
  • Ask for specific explanation wherein lies the problem or what you are accused of;
  • When detained, immediately demand meeting with consul or some other representative of Estonian embassy or consulate.
  • If people desire to engage in conversation with you, as what agency the person is representing and what are his name and position;
  • Ask to see the person’s employment certificate and diligently memorise the position and name written therein;
  • Always try to memorise the characteristics and name of a «benevolent» or «curious» person;
  • In case of intrusive approach, let them know you will not be silent about the conversation or other experiences, rather telling it to Estonian media and Estonian law enforcement authorities (it is especially effective to hint at contacts with international media).
  • Stay self-assured, confident and resolute. If you are compliant, those bothering you will get increasingly intrusive, concluding that you can indeed be blackmailed or swayed into cooperation some other ways;
  • Do not believe promises that after you do them this little favour you will be left alone. Do not believe the promises which, in your opinion, are not according to law. The more entangled with a foreign intelligence you get, the more blackmailable you become, the more will be demanded from you and the harder it will be for you to say «no» later.

Source: Security Police