Accessibility links

1999 In Review: Computer Glitch Grabs Attention

  • Brent McCann

Computers are everywhere these days. And so is a potential threat known as the Y2K bug. For RFE/RL's series of features at the end of the millennium, correspondent Brent McCann has looked into the implications of the Y2K bug for Eastern and Central Europe, Central Asia and Russia. What he has learned is cause for concern.

Prague, 23 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite the widespread attention it has attracted in the past few years, no one is really certain of the impact the millennium bug will have on Jan. 1, 2000.

But some computer experts say this little electronic error -- also known as the Y2K bug -- could disrupt everything from electric power systems to bank records. One study suggests that Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia are among the regions least prepared to deal with the bug.

In fact, the U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus because of possible Y2K disruptions. The department authorized voluntary departure for U.S. embassy employees and their families during the time Y2K problems may occur. The warnings mention in particular possible disruptions in electricity and heating.

The Y2K problem is this: From the beginning of the computer revolution in the 1960s, programmers -- the people who write the instructions that tell computers what to do -- have used a simple shortcut. To save space, called memory, in computer programs, they abbreviated dates -- essential to computer operations -- by leaving off the first two digits of the years. Thus, Nineteen-Ninety became Nine-oh; and Nineteen-ninety-five, simply Nine-five.

Only in the last few years did the realization gradually dawn that in the year Two Thousand, this would be a problem. Given the way computer programs work, many programs -- confused -- would simply shut down or spew out garbled instructions.

Since awareness of the issue arose, firms and governments have spent billions of dollars to adjust to it. Some analysts believe that many others have come up with too little too late.

Nick Gogarty is a senior analyst with International Monitoring, a technology consulting group based in Britain. His business is to tell international corporations what to expect from Y2K in countries around the world.

The consultant tells RFE/RL there is little cause for panic and that the potential is for inconvenience rather than disaster.

"The vast majority of people in, let's say, a highly agricultural-based economy may not have immediate concerns. They may find the markets for their products might experience some added volatility due to either shipping or other constraints in terms of technological points of delivery and service, like ports and transportation. But in terms of their day to day lives, they may not notice a difference."

Reports say that many people across Eastern Europe and Central Asia are not worried about the Y2K problem, some are not even aware of it. Besides, many people in these regions say they are accustomed to dealing with disruptions in basic services.

Still, it's impossible to say how little or how large of an effect a single Y2K problem could have in certain places. For instance, Eastern European power grids are interconnected, so one country's problem could become another's. Another fact, regarding recently purchased computer products, is that some computers sold as little as two years ago were not made Y2K-complient.

Gogarty says people should educate themselves, especially those in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia: "There is potential greater risk for issues in delivery of critical services, whether that's water or heat. And I'd advise individuals, like we'd advise our clients, to seek out information about those services."

Gogarty's firm predicts that all the effects of Y2K may not be evident immediately. He says that perhaps 10 percent of Y2K failures will occur at the start of the new millennium and the remainder will build up over the following two weeks to two months.

International Monitoring, Gogarty's company, last month published results of a study in which they rated the nations of the world on a scale from best prepared to worst prepared. It found that many Eastern nations in transition from communism are lagging behind.

The rankings include the following: better prepared -- Hungary; moderately prepared -- Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia; less prepared -- Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Russia; and worst prepared -- Moldova and Tajikstan.

The study found that Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan failed to provide enough information for a meaningful assessment.

Perhaps the most noted country in this list is Russia, described as less prepared. Russian officials say their country is far less computerized than more western countries and therefore will not be greatly affected by the Y2K problems. But here Y2K fears revolve more around one concern in particular: nuclear warheads.

This, of course, has been a great concern for the United States. Between the two countries there are 4,400 warheads ready to launch in a minute or less. The fear is not that there will be an actual launch, but that a problem could arise from someone misinterpreting information from radar and monitoring systems.

But the U.S. and Russia have worked together to make sure there are no misunderstandings. In fact, 18 Russian defense specialists will fly to the U.S. in order to monitor jointly the weapons from a missile-tracking command center.

Another center that will deal with potential Y2K problems is the International Y2K Cooperation Center, established by the United Nations and the World Bank last February. Its job is to disseminate information and to help officials and citizens around the world to fend off Y2K disruptions.

The center appointed Mario Tagarinski, Bulgaria's former minister of administration, as regional coordinator for the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Tagarinski recently told RFE/RL that real international cooperation has been seen in the response to Y2K:

"The unique thing in this case is that, between all nations, a global mechanism of coordination has been developed, which is not influenced by the political or economic development of these countries, or by the expenditure consideration, or by other differences."

Tagarinski says that the International Y2K Cooperation Center has developed a program on the Internet called Y2K Global Status Watch. It will begin on December 28 and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the threat of Y2K problems is over. He says it will carry reports on the status of critical services such as energy, communications, finance, air transport, sea transport, health and government operations.

(Elena Nikleva of the Bulgarian Service assisted with this report.)