Czechs say Russian spies targeting energy sector

Wed Jun 23, 2010 7:16pm IST

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* Czech report sees uptick in Russian spies

* Increased focus on energy sector

By Robert Mueller

PRAGUE, June 23 (Reuters) - Russian spies are increasingly active in the Czech Republic and turning their attention to the energy sector, including nuclear power, the Czech counter-intelligence agency BIS said on Wednesday.

Over the past few years the agency has highlighted steady activity of Russian spies in the central European NATO and European Union country but the report for the first time identified an uptick in the scientific and energy sector.

"Russian intelligence services do not have competition on the Czech territory when it comes to breadth, intensity, aggressiveness and the number of operations," the BIS report said.

While many joint projects between the two countries are legitimate, the presence of Russian intelligence operatives among academics and students poses a potential problem for the former Soviet satellite state, the report said.

"The Russian intelligence capacity and activity increased mainly in the science-technology and economic sector, including energy," the report said.

"These projects are themselves legitimate, but they get tainted by the presence of Russian intelligence operatives."

Moscow itself frequently complains of increased espionage activity by foreign intelligence agencies against Russia.

Czech counter-intelligence had previously warned of Russian spying activity increased in connection with plans to build a U.S. missile defence radar in the country.

The scheme was cancelled by the Barack Obama administration, but Russian interest remained.

Czechs remain wary of Russia following decades of Soviet domination under communism and more recently due to the winter 2009 gas row between Russia and Ukraine that cut off gas supplies to countries in central and southeastern Europe.

Energy is also a crucial issue for a country boasting a large nuclear capacity and which is one of the biggest electricity exporters in Europe.

"The Russian side focuses on the intellectual elites, current and prospective ones," the report found. "The Russian side is ready to press hard in order to get its operatives to diplomatic posts in the Czech Republic."

The report comes after the Czech government on Monday appointed a special envoy for a tender to expand the Temelin nuclear power plant -- a project which will have Russian bidders.

The two-year appointment thrusts Vaclav Bartuska -- a student leader during the 1989 revolution that ended communist rule -- into state-owned CEZ's search for a supplier for the expansion of Temelin and other nuclear units.

Toshiba Corp (6502.T) unit Westinghouse, a group of Russia's Atomstroyexport and Czech Skoda JS, and France's Areva CEPFi.PA are bidding to build the 2 new units at Temelin, near the Austrian border, and possibly two other units in Slovakia and one at CEZ's eastern Czech Dukovany station.

In May, Bartuska, who has long made public his wariness of Russian involvement in the Czech energy sector, told Reuters the Temelin decision would determine whether his country looks east to Russia or west toward the European Union.

(additional reporting by Michael Kahn, Writing by Michael Kahn, Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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