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East: U.S. Revises Y2K Preparedness Information

American travelers or personnel expecting to be in Russia or former Eastern bloc countries on or around January of the year 2000 could experience problems affecting financial services, utilities, telecommunications, transportation and other vital sectors. This is a result of the Y2K Millennium "computer bug" and the apparent lack of preparedness by such countries to respond to potential Y2K-related problems in the region. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports:

Washington, 15 September 1999 (RFE/RL) - The United States has revised consular information sheets for 196 countries and territories, regarding general readiness for potential problems stemming from any Y2K "Millennium bug" computer problems.

The Year 2000 problem may occur because some computer programs, especially older ones, might fail when the date changes to the year 2000. Because the programs were written to recognize only the last two digits of a year, such programs could read the digits "00" as 1900.

John O'Keefe, of the State Department's Office of the Undersecretary for Management, characterized the updated sections as indicating a "significant improvement" in preparedness overall. O'Keefe briefed reporters Tuesday at a special release of the revised information at the U.S. State Department in Washington. He was joined by the State Department's director of overseas citizen's services, Kevin Herbert. Herbert said overall, Americans should be prepared to face a myriad of potential problems, if indeed the Y2K problem comes to pass.

Herbert said: "In country's that are not sufficiently prepared, the Y2K problem could negatively impact financial services, utilities such as electricity and water, medical services, telecommunications, energy, transportation, and other vital sectors."

Both U.S. officials stressed that there was not as much predictability as one might like in seeking to address or avert these problems. But they said the United States was involved in ongoing, "active" dialogue with the international community on the issue.

Herbert further noted that each embassy reported on the level of risk associated with each of its major sectors and that U.S. officials have made follow-up inquiries and assessments in the previous months.

Neither official would give any detailed information or assessment of Y2K readiness on a country-by-country basis. But RFE/RL's correspondent notes that upon further review of the individual country/territory report break-outs, Russia and former Eastern Bloc countries remain a potential problem area for U.S. personnel and American travelers in the region.

The updates indicate that Ukraine and Belarus, while not heavily reliant on computer systems, are still "unprepared" to deal with the Y2K problem. And it warned Americans that Kyiv and Minsk risk potential disruption in all key sectors, especially the energy and electric services.

Russia, Moldova, and Romania were said to be only slightly "more prepared," while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Poland, and Uzbekistan were sighted as likely to experience risks in their energy or health sectors.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was said to have gotten off to a "late start" in addressing the Y2K problem and U.S. officials say that for the most part, senior government and industry leaders are just beginning to understand and address the issue.

The only apparent highlight in the report were the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. But even there, U.S. officials warn there could be problems with the internationally shared electric grid.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering told journalists no decision has been made as to whether to draw-down or close U.S. embassies overseas in advance of or during the Millennium change-over. That decision, according to Pickering, will be made -- if needed -- closer to the year 2000.

In the meantime, U.S. officials advise Americans to keep abreast of the issue by accessing the State Department Consular Information page available on the world wide web.