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1997 In Review: Former East Bloc Nations Race Along Information Superhighway

Washington, 18 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The year 1997 saw a slightly bumpy, but progressive ride, along the information superhighway for most of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

One of the major technology-related events of the year in the region was the announcement in May by a U.S.-based telecommunications firm, MCI Communications Corporations, that it will provide the largest Internet access connection ever installed in Russia.

An MCI spokesman said the firm was chosen by AO Rostelcom, the primary international telecommunications carrier in Russia. Rostelcom and MCI plan to install special circuits that will permit data to be transmitted at a speedy rate of up to two megabytes a second. In simpler terms, this would allow the transfer of approximately 500 pages of written text every second.

Russia was also the site of a visit by Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, in October. The American software multi-billionaire said he visited Moscow to promote Microsoft computer products. Gates also met some of Russia's leading government officials, bankers and business executives.

Microsoft is already supplying software to the Sberbank, Russia's largest savings bank chain. The chairman of Sberbank, Andrei Kazmin, told reporters during Gates' visit that the bank had signed a $1.65 million agreement with Microsoft to obtain software.

During his visit to Russia, Gates also closed a deal to provide software and network services to Russia's largest oil company, LUKoil.

On another front, more than 80 Russian journalists and Internet operators met with American computer specialists in October in the city of Ekaterinburg, Russia for a conference on the latest Internet developments.

The three-day conference was called "New Media for a New World" and organized by a local branch of the National Press Institute (NPI) and Ural State University. It was financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Open Society Institute (OSI), headed by American financier George Soros.

According to NPI, the purpose of the conference was to reach journalists interested in the Internet throughout Russia and inform them of the information and business possibilities the Internet can provide.

Several countries in Eastern Europe also received some advanced high-speed Internet technology in 1997 after entering into agreements with two American organizations.

In August, Soros's OSI and NetSat Express -- a U.S.-based supplier of Internet access via satellite -- began testing new Internet technology in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria and rump Yugoslavia.

The agreements were for NetSat to provide two types of satellite terminals to the countries to help them link to the Internet. Romania, Lithuania and Poland received their terminals free of charge for a six-month testing period -- at the end of which, they can purchase the terminals if they want. The terminals in the other three countries were purchased outright.

OSI has been testing the technology at its offices in Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and rump Yugoslavia. The Stefan Batory Foundation in Poland and the International Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine have been using the terminals in their offices.

According to Jonathan Peizer, the Chief Information Officer at OSI, the new satellite technology is "well-suited" to countries in Eastern Europe, because neither of the terminals rely heavily on the condition of a country's telecommunication's infrastructure.

Eastern Europe was also well represented at an Internet conference in the Netherlands in October called "Business on the Net: A New Market Emerges."

The conference was sponsored by EDventure Holdings, a small, U.S.-based company focusing on information technology and the emerging computer markets of Central and Eastern Europe.

According to EDventure, the 1997 high-tech conference attracted 135 attendees from 22 countries, including many Eastern European and former USSR nations. Among the countries represented from the region were: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

EDventure officials say participants at the conference discussed and brainstormed ways to build long-term market value for their products on the Internet, as well as form regional and long-distance business alliances. EDventure says that another conference has already been scheduled for October 1998 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The region of Central Asia also saw some remarkable developments in information technology in 1997.

Uzbekistan, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program, launched the nation's first inter-governmental networking program designed to facilitate information exchange between government agencies and provide them with better access to the Internet.

The Uzbek Department for Coordination of External Economic Activities of the Cabinet of Ministers developed a three-year plan which will physically link local area networks within various ministries and other government organizations, introduce an electronic document management system for information exchange, and provide Internet access to some 15 participating institutions.

In Tajikistan, the Central Asia Development Agency (CADA) -- a U.S.-based charitable organization -- had a busy year in 1997.

CADA has been active in Central Asia since 1995, helping to expand e-mail capability across the region.

In April, CADA opened a new public access office in the city of Khojand, the capital of the northern Leninabad Oblast region. According David Brooks, the Deputy Director of CADA, this means that the general public in the area can come to the office to use electronic mail or the Internet at CADA's expense. CADA already has an office in Dushanbe that Brooks says is popular with the public.

Another major success was that in November CADA successfully established an electronic mail connection between the Leninabad Oblast and the central and southern regions of Tajikistan. This effectively expanded the number of e-mail addresses in Tajikistan to approximately 1,500.

The city of Almaty in Kazakhstan was also the site of important Internet activity in 1997.

The Sacred Earth Network (SEN) -- a U.S.-based, non-profit environmental organization -- together with the Turkmen Catena Ecological Club -- an Ashgabad-based environmental group -- and Green Salvation -- an non-governmental environmental organization based in Almaty, Kazakhstan -- held a networking conference in Almaty in February.

Bill Pfeiffer, Executive Director of SEN, said the goal of the conference was to teach other non-governmental organizations in the region about the technical and legal aspects of setting up a server system in Central Asia.

Pfeiffer says the conference was well-attended and he plans to organize and sponsor similar conferences in the future.

Yerevan, Armenia also hosted an international Internet conference in 1997. In May, NATO held an advanced networking conference in the city.

The conference titled "Internet Development in Armenia and Region: Means, Aims and Prospects," covered Internet technology, information services, network management, Internet education and security. Attendees included representatives from Armenia, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S.

Georgia also made some remarkable strides in information technology in 1997.

Perhaps the biggest Internet-related event for Georgia this year was the opening of an Internet Center for Wide Open World in Tbilisi.

The center is the project of the Open Society Georgia Foundation -- an independent Georgian organization funded by American financier George Soros.

Sandro Karumidze, Director of the new center, told RFE/RL that the goal of the center is to provide Internet grants to organizations across Georgia, and especially to those groups working on the promotion of the Internet in Georgia.