Moscow, 3 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's upper house, the Federation Council, tomorrow examines the global ban on chemical weapons following approval by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, last Friday.
This is the second step toward full ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that Russia had signed in 1993, but had so far failed to ratify over deputies' concern over the funding of the dismantling procedure.
After a heated debate, the State Duma voted 288 to 75, with two abstentions, to approve the Convention, that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of chemical weapons. Under the Convention, existing stocks must be destroyed by the year 2007.
Russia's estimated stockpile of 40,000 tons of chemical weapons is the largest in the world. According to official figures, it includes nerve gas that has been kept in ageing facilities for more than 50 years. Russian officials and environmentalists alike have said the stockpiles could turn into an environmental time-bomb if left to decay any longer. They say the situation is made more dangerous by the fact that existing, unsafe storage facilities are located near populated areas.
The United States's chemical arsenal is the second largest and amounts to 31,000 tons. The U.S. is among the 102 countries that have already ratified the convention, which went into force in April.
Russia is, so far, the only Permanent Member of the United Nation's Security Council not to have ratified the convention. President Boris Yeltsin, who supports the CWC, first urged the State Duma to ratify it in April, but without success. Legislators said Russia lacked the funds to meet requirements that chemical weapons and production facilities be destroyed within ten years.
Last week, submitting the text to the State Duma, for the second time, Yeltsin urged deputies to "take the correct decision." Yeltsin said Russia would have to get rid of it chemical arsenal "in any case," and insisted that joining the convention would qualify Russia for international aid for the destruction costs. According to Yeltsin "this aid must constitute one fifth of the overall dismantling expenses" which Russian officials estimated at $5 billion until the year 2005. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov put the figure at $6 billion. However, a comment in the "New York Times," after the Duma vote, said Western nations, including the U.S., have not committed themselves to providing as much aid as Russia has required.
First Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov hailed the Duma vote last week. He said that "this is a very important decision in the interests of Russia and in the interests of the world's stability."
Ivanov and General Staff head Anatoly Kvashnin were among the officials who urged Duma deputies to ratify the treaty. Kvashnin said chemical weapons, currently stockpiled in seven locations in Russia, "cannot be stored indefinitely." He told deputies in the Communist- and-nationalist-dominated Duma that "I am not being dramatic when I say that there is not much time before chemical substances start to leak in large quantities," and concluded that "to delay the issue is extremely dangerous."
But the most convincing argument came when the government said it was ready to earmark extra money for the destruction of chemical weapons, and gave lawmakers additional guarantees that Russia could pull out of the Convention should problems arise. In a letter to the Duma, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin promised that the 1998 budget will include $86 million for destroying chemical weapons, up from the $13 million earmarked originally. However, Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the Duma's Foreign Affairs committee, and a supporter of the Convention's approval, admitted that, even with extra funding, the government will likely have difficulties financing the dismantling-and-destruction program.
In the draft law submitted on treaty ratifications, deputies voted to include a clause, reading, if Russia is faced with a threat to its national security, or if economic problems make impossible implementation of the treaty, Moscow could pull out.
Observers in Moscow say that following Yeltsin's and the government's financial assurances, approval of the convention in the Federation Council looks likely. Duma deputies belonging to some of the regions on the Volga, where the aging storage facilities are located, have already said they are encouraged by the fact that, according to government officials, 60 percent of the funds for dismantling are to go to infrastructure projects in the areas, where the chemical weapons are kept.
A Russian political observer, wishing to remain anonymous, told RFE/RL that he expects regional leaders, "well aware" that dismantling has to take place as soon as possible, to vote in favor of the ratification, as they "are concerned that otherwise the cost would have to be paid out of their troubled budgets."
Western specialists Friday hailed the Duma decision, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has welcomed Russia's progress towards accepting a global ban, and said it hopes other countries will be inspired by the move.
However, problems remain. Russia's program for dismantling chemical weapons has been heavily criticized by environmental activists. Greenpeace Russia campaigner Ivan Blokov told our Moscow correspondent that "ratification of the convention and Russia's chemical weapons-dismantling program are two completely different issues." He said Greenpeace "welcomes" the Duma vote, but criticizes the fact that the government's dismantling program, prepared by the Ministry of Defense, "does not give details of the dismantling plans, and has not, so far, been reviewed by the government's own environmental experts, which is compulsory under Russian law.
"This lack of transparency," says Blokov, "gives grounds to assume that dismantling and disposal may not be carried out for at least the next two years, or that it could be carried out with unsafe technologies."
Russia's Foreign Ministry said that, if the Federation Council follows the State Duma and completes parliamentary ratification of the Convention, Moscow will participate next month in a conference of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as a full member. The Ministry said this is an important goal, as the conference will discuss verification measures, the conversion of chemical facilities and the organizations' budget for next year, the topic that most concerns Russia.