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Russia: U.S. Imposing Limits On Aid Programs

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress is moving to set new limits on aid programs for Russian nuclear scientists because of concerns that the funds often do not reach those that they are intended to help.

Officials in Washington last week cited numerous problems with U.S. Department of Energy programs that provide civilian jobs for scientists at Russia's nuclear institutes. The program known as "Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention" was started in 1994 because of fears that needy scientists may sell nuclear technology to other countries unless they are kept employed.

But members of Congress have been angered by reports that only a fraction of the funds spent in the past five years has actually been paid to Russian scientists.

A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that only 37 percent of the money spent on the program has gone to former Soviet institutes. The rest has been spent on U.S. nuclear laboratories and American companies to pay for their participation.

Since 1994, the U.S. government paid out $63.5 million, but only $23.7 million went to the institutes. Even of that amount, Russian scientists received only a portion because of overhead and taxes. The auditors were unable to say how much was actually paid as wages for work. The report estimated that there are 1 million scientists and engineers at 4,000 institutes in Russia.

Last week, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee passed legislation that would cut the share of funds spent at the U.S. laboratories by half so that more of the money will get through to the Russian scientists. The measure would also prohibit any money being paid for Russian taxes on the aid.

The program has also come under fire in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a similar measure to increase the share of funds going to Russia. But it would also reduce the funding for next year from the $30 million sought by the administration of President Bill Clinton. The final amount is likely to be negotiated over the next several months.

Congressional officials voiced serious doubts about the program last week and argued that it has not achieved its goals. One aide noted that out of 79 cooperative projects that have been reviewed, not one has become a commercial success.

The skepticism has spilled over onto a new U.S. aid project for Russian scientists, called the "Nuclear Cities Program," which is designed to create non-military jobs for scientists in 10 formerly secret cities which have contributed to Russian weapons development. It is estimated that the new program could cost 600 million dollars over the next five years.

But suspicions about the earlier Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program may lead to tough restrictions on any new aid plans.

The Senate committee has insisted, for example, that no money will be paid under the Nuclear Cities Program until the U.S. government certifies that Russia has agreed to close all facilities engaged in work on weapons of mass destruction. The proposal is the result of a finding by the U.S. General Accounting Office that some scientists who are still working on Russia's weapons are being paid by the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program.

The Russian government may find the terms unacceptable. It is too early to tell whether the provision will survive in the final legislation to be passed by the U.S. Congress this year. But the proposed condition is a sign of the problems that aid to Russian scientists are likely to face. The Russian aid measures are part of legislation for the U.S. defense budget, which was passed by both committees. Surprisingly, the bills have not included new sanctions or controls on high-tech exports to China despite continuing controversy over U.S. allegations of alleged spying.

But congressional officials and legislative experts warn that there is still time and opportunity for new China restrictions. The issue is expected to heat up this week with the scheduled release of a report by a House special committee on technology transfer to China.

"I fully expect to see China legislation later this year," said Eric Hirschhorn, a former U.S. Commerce Department official, who is now an attorney at the Washington law firm of Winston and Strawn.

A congressional aide said that measures to limit U.S. exports to China are more likely to emerge later on the floor of the Congress rather than earlier in committee because of legislative tactics. The aide said those who favor sanctions often try to avoid the jurisdiction of other committees that are more favorable to trade.