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Passport Denied: the New 'Refusniks'

Even after communism's end in Russia, several thousand people are still rejected when they apply to emigrate abroad

DMITRI KINKULHIN is busy preparing for a long-awaited trip to Jerusalem. But until recently he was not sure that he would be able to leave Russia.

Since his brother and his family emigrated five years ago, Mr. Kinkulhin has dreamed of this reunion. But his requests were at first denied and he was a ''refusnik.''

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One might have assumed that this old-fashioned Soviet bureaucratic entity, a classic of totalitarian human rights abuses, had disappeared from the Russian lexicon with the end of communism. Instead, several thousand people are currently denied passports. Though the Iron Curtain has folded, they are still trapped inside Russia.

Kinkulhin, a radio-electrical engineer, once worked for a satellite communication company tied to the Soviet defense industry. ''But I was exclusively involved in computer programming and had no access to military or intelligence data,'' he explains.

His passport application, however, was turned down on the ground that he was still the bearer of ''state secrets.''

''The only secret was the age of my computer,'' he scoffs and recalls that ''a compassionate lady at the passport office'' advised him to appeal his passport refusal ''to a governmental commission I had never heard of. I eventually found it, appealed, and finally won.''

In the 1970s, when the plight of many refusniks became an international issue, there was neither appeal nor commission.

The refusniks were Jews denied the right to emigrate to Israel allegedly because they knew ''state secrets.'' They were at the forefront of the human rights struggle in the Soviet Union. The Jackson-Vanik amendment made them pawns in US-Soviet relations. (The 1974 US law linked trade benefits to the former Soviet Union to an easing of restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews.)

''Nowadays, fewer than 300 people are denied the right to emigrate,'' says Leonid Paperno, who heads the Public Council of Refusniks on Secrecy. ''But as many as 8,000 people are simply not allowed to travel abroad. The figure could be much higher, but many people don't even bother to apply for a passport, assuming they'll be turned down,'' he says. Different passports are issued for internal use, emigration, or foreign travel.

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In 1991, under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a new law allowing freedom of movement for Soviet citizens was enacted. ''But there were many 'buts,' '' says Henry Lapin, the executive secretary of the appeal commission.

Extension of quarantine

A quarantine of five years could be applied to people who had worked with important state secrets, and a footnote in the law provided for the extension of the quarantine if the secrets were of ''special importance.''

''At that time, despite its limitations, it was quite good. At least it was a law,'' Mr. Lapin says.

In 1991, the new sovereign Russia adopted the existing Soviet law. In 1993, Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin created the interdepartmental appeal commission, a mechanism welcomed by local and international human rights monitors. It has received some 450 appeals and has ruled in favor of the applicants in almost 90 percent of the cases.

But the blanket of ''state secrets,'' which had covered almost everything for so long, had been only partially lifted and its arbitrary nature barely dented.

''The military-industrial complex was the main slave master,'' Lapin explains.

''It employed more than 70 percent of the urban population of the Soviet Union,'' Mr. Paperno adds.

Thus it is not surprising that most passport applicants must still get a security clearance from the ''first bureau'' - a euphemism for the intelligence services still attached to most factories and laboratories.

There, zealous ex-KGB (now FSK, or Federal Counter-Intelligence Service) officers can veto applications. They tend to strictly impose the five-year quarantine and the commission rarely challenges them on the initial ruling. Generally, the commission has only gone against the security forces when they have tried to extend the quarantine.

Since the criteria for what falls under which degree of secrecy is itself a secret, the applicant finds himself in a Catch-22 situation.

''He can only find out where he stands by having access to the list - but by doing so, he becomes the bearer of a secret,'' says Boris Altshuler of the organization Movement Without Borders.

A written request by The Christian Science Monitor to the FSK for a definition of what is now considered a state secret in Russia was refused.

Like the characters in a Samuel Beckett play, passport applicants must navigate between the arbitrary and the absurd. Lapin remembers helping a woman whose job had been to put the stamp ''secret'' on foreign journals. These journals are now on sale in any public book store. Nevertheless, she had been denied a passport. ''The problem is that we can't put ourselves inside the head of the intelligence guy in Vladivostok. His mentality has not changed,'' Lapin laments.

Kinkulhin knows that only too well. The company he worked for created the Soviet global navigation system, which was once top secret. For the FSK it is still a secret, even though ''Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin are discussing how to integrate the Russian system and the American one,'' he says.

Obsolete secrecy law

Aside from political changes, the refusniks argue, contemporary technological reality in the age of the fax and the Internet should lead to the updating of the definition of state secrecy. Stopping Russians from physically traveling abroad is no longer sufficient to prevent them from revealing state secrets if they possess them.

''What we need is a new law,'' Lapin insists. ''We have studied the systems in other European countries, where the presumption of innocence is a juridical principle. But in Russia, we have a presumption of guilt - and that's what we have to change.''

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