West quietly underwrites Russia's nuclear scientists

April 01, 1994|By Boston Globe

MOSCOW -- A foreign-backed program to provide funds for civilian projects for Russian nuclear-weapons scientists finally started up this week, but Russian officials insisted there be no fanfare for fear it might provoke an outcry from ultranationalists in the Federal Assembly, or parliament.

The program calls for the United States, Japan and the European Union to give $12 million to 600 of these scientists in the coming months and $57 million to more than 3,000 over the next few years.

The program is driven by the fear that as Russia's military budget declines, its suddenly impoverished nuclear scientists might feel tempted to accept lucrative offers from Iraq, Libya or some other country to help build a nuclear weapon. The hope is that the program will provide a good enough wage to resist temptation.

"Ordinarily," said one Western official, "there would be a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the American ambassador, maybe a reception" at his residence, to celebrate the start of such a project. However, several officials said Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry had insisted on minimal publicity.

"They don't want to agitate the nationalists in the Duma," the lower house of parliament, one official said. About half the Duma's deputies oppose any steps that open up Russia's military apparatus to what they see as Western prying and subversion.

The playing-down of the program -- which, just 16 months ago, had been trumpeted as a great advance in U.S.-Russian relations -- is the latest example of the Russian government's reluctance to challenge the country's growing nationalist, anti-Western sentiment.

The agreement to set up the program -- known as the International Science and Technology Center -- was signed in November 1992. But for a year nothing happened. Some commentators saw the inaction as another example of American bad faith, promising money but failing to deliver.

However, the obstacle was on the Russian side. The Supreme Soviet -- the former Russian parliament -- was refusing to vote on ratifying the agreement. Finally, in November, after the old parliament died and before the Federal Assembly was born, President Boris N. Yeltsin signed a decree approving a "provisional" version of the agreement.

Officials doubt the conservatives in the Duma can muster enough votes to reject the accord. However, animated both by nationalism and by a resentment toward Mr. Yeltsin's executive decrees in general, they could put up enough resistance to slow down the projects.

Glenn Schweitzer, an American scientist who runs the center, said Russian government officials do not share the Duma's nationalist suspicions of the center.

"They're worried about nuclear proliferation as much as we are," he said. "They know hundreds of their scientists are out on the street because their jobs don't pay well enough. They're worried because they don't want their neighbor to get nuclear bombs."

He doubted the Russian military-industrial complex would free up its top weapons scientists to work on environmental monitoring. He said the center "won't solve the problem; there will still be leakages. But I think we can slow the leakage, and that's important."

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