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NATO: The Alliance's Other Face -- Scientific Research And Disaster Relief

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Once again, attention is focused on the NATO alliance, this time as it moves ahead with a key arms-collection mission in Macedonia. People are used to seeing NATO soldiers in the field in these types of roles. Less often in the spotlight, however, are the alliance's non-military activities. These include a science support program and a natural disaster relief service.

Prague, 27 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Security, in its broader definition, depends on much more than military preparedness. It depends at its core on trust and friendship between peoples. With this in mind, the NATO alliance has been reaching out to its one-time adversaries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with non-military programs aimed at building mutual confidence.

One such activity is the NATO science program, in which some 13,000 scientists from East and West participate each year. Eligible to fully join in the various collaborative activities are men and women from NATO's 19 member states -- plus 23 partner countries -- ranging from Albania and Belarus through Moldova and Russia to Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The program supports scores of individual research and development projects -- all non-military in nature -- which are as diverse as the scientists working on them. One, for instance, deals with the development of an "effective small-scale bio-reactor for production of heat, gas, and electricity on Georgian farms," and involves Professor Teimuraz Abzianidze, along with a scientist colleague in France.

Another is a "study for radioactive waste disposal sites in Turkmenistan," involving Professor Babbamurad Djumamuradov. There's also "an assessment of seismic risk in Tashkent and Bishkek," involving Tursunbay Rahidov, and another project dealing with Bulgaria's rare and threatened medicinal plants. Suzanne Michaelis, assistant director of the constituent Science for Peace program, tells RFE/RL that the collaborative projects are only one aspect of the alliance's broader offerings. She says:

"The overall program, funded by about $24 million per year, is divided into four sub-programs. One sub-program is fellowships, in which senior or young [academic] fellows can travel from an [Eastern] partner country to a NATO country, or the other way around."

The second and third sub-programs concern various forms of financial support for the holding of forums and workshops, and also for attendance at such gatherings. The fourth sub-program, Science for Peace, supports the selected applied research and development projects already mentioned.

Michaelis says the broad program is fulfilling its intended purpose:

"Absolutely, we have many, many scientists who meet everywhere in the EAPC countries -- that is, in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council countries -- to work together, to exchange information, to get to know each other, to get trust and confidence. That's very, very important in a scientific community. Before you can collaborate, you need confidence in your partner."

Michaelis says that one advantage for NATO is that many of the Eastern scientists have good connections with leading politicians in their own countries, so that the positive atmosphere created by scientific cooperation includes a political dimension.

Also based at NATO headquarters in Brussels, like the science program, is the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center. It was set up in 1998 on an impulse originally stemming from EAPC member Russia. All NATO states and their Eastern partners can contribute to the center's work.

The coordinator of the center, Evert Sumer, tells RFE/RL that the unit has been active in a number of Eastern European disasters.

"In Ukraine, for instance, we had floods [this year] in the trans-Carpathian region, and smaller floods in Romania in the same timescale. But also last winter, when there was really extreme weather conditions both in Ukraine and Moldova which had a severe impact, particularly on their electricity infrastructure. We helped these nations in getting the resources they needed to rebuild their electricity infrastructure, but also in helping people, because if there is no electricity in the middle of the winter, you have people needing clothes, blankets, and so on."

Other jobs the center has undertaken include contributing to the rescue effort that followed the devastating Turkish earthquake in 1999 and to the Kosovo refugee crisis in 1998-99.

Sumer explains that along with the commitment of resources comes commitment of expertise.

"If you [for instance] bring pumps from the Netherlands to Ukraine, it is not always the case that the [local people] can handle [the equipment], so you have to send people who can work with this equipment and set it up and then who can return to their home country, and later, when the emergency is over, pick up the equipment again."

Sumer's staff in the disaster response center is drawn from a number of NATO member states, plus the EAPC partner states Ukraine, Romania, and Slovenia. As Sumer says, that is one of the best things about the job -- working with colleagues from the entire spectrum of participating nations.

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