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East/West: Gorbachev, Thatcher Say Internet Powerful Political Tool

Washington, 25 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say the Internet and related technology will play a major role in spreading democracy around the globe.

Gorbachev and Thatcher stated their views Tuesday near Washington at the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology. The congress, which was founded 20 years ago, meets every two years and attracts prominent business, political and technology leaders from around the world.

Both Thatcher and Gorbachev said that the Internet's remarkable capability to rapidly spread ideas and information to every corner of the globe makes it a powerful tool in fighting political and economic tyranny.

Thatcher said she believed the Internet would eventually help topple the communist governments in China and North Korea.

Said Thatcher: "It's going to be more and more difficult to keep the truth out because of the Internet."

But Gorbachev warned that "responsible development" of the Internet and information technology is critical. He said business and economic leaders should include both developing and underdeveloped countries in the information revolution.

Gorbachev said the majority of people in the world live in underdeveloped countries. He emphasized that as the disparity between the rich and the poor continues to widen, political and business leaders from wealthy countries should make it a priority to share technology with poorer nations.

Gorbachev added, however, that leaders should not be indifferent to countries that see the Internet as a threat to their culture and national identity. He says the U.S. and other leading nations must not force the development of this technology too quickly on these countries, especially those nations that view technology as a form of "electronic colonization."

Gorbachev said nations would do best to emulate the European Union's approach to spreading information technology. He says the E.U. traditionally has urged nations to slowly integrate advanced technology into public and educational policy as well as social interests.

In regards to Internet use in Russia, Gorbachev said that despite "difficult conditions" in Russia, interest remains "very high," especially among young people. He added that there are already one million Internet users in Russia with that number doubling every year.

Gorbachev said that there are currently 350 Internet providers in Russia. Additionally, he said that the volume of long-distance and telephone traffic in Russia in just the first three months of 1998 has grown more than 26 percent.

Gorbachev explained: "The information sector of the Russian market, unlike the rest of the economy, is growing very rapidly. In terms of total capitalization and the stock market, telecommunications companies take third place right after oil/gas and utilities."

Gorbachev said that today there are more than 6,000 companies, particularly small and middle-sized companies, which work in the information technology sector in Russia. He added that Russian scientists are still among the leaders in the world in theoretical and applied mathematics and have made important contributions to the field of information technology.

But Gorbachev acknowledged that there are some alarming problems in the information technology sector in Russia. One of the worst problem, said Gorbachev, is the serious brain drain of Russian scientists and scholars.

Gorbachev explained: "As far as I know, one-third or thirty percent of the computer software programs in the U.S. have been developed by mathematicians from Russia who had to leave the country. This is not an equitable or mutually beneficial situation, and it has been negatively perceived in Russia."

Gorbachev also cited economic and political difficulties as hampering the industry in Russia. Still he urged businesses to invest in Russia, especially in the information technology sector.

Said Gorbachev: "I want you to come to Russia. Don't be scared by all the things you have heard about Russia. Thousands of companies are already present here....Is business free of risk? No. Business is always a risky thing."

Later, while taking questions from reporters, Gorbachev admitted that he didn't know how to use the computer very well.

Gorbachev said: "Let me tell you very frankly, my daughter and even my youngest granddaughter do a lot better with the computer than I do."

Overall, countries from the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe were well-represented at the congress. Among the nations in attendance were: Bosnia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

Congress officials said they had over 1,500 attendees from more than 70 countries.