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Sans Serif: Western Sanctions Hit Russia In An Unlikely Place

The Kremlin has put special emphasis on replacing foreign-built or -designed computer hardware and software -- such as Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows operating system -- with Russian systems.

Need more evidence that the Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula are hitting Moscow right where it hurts?

How about computer fonts?

A Russian computer-programming company says it has scrambled to write code for a Kremlin-contracted operating system after it was denied license to use some of the most common computer fonts in the world.

RusBitTech is the developer of Astra Linux, an operating system similar to Windows or Mac OS specifically designed for use in Russia. The software was ordered six years ago, for special use by the Defense Ministry and agencies, including the Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB.

According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, RusBitTech told the Communications Ministry earlier this month that the programmers had sought to buy licenses for certain fonts. Those included one called Times New Roman, which is one of the world's most commonly used computer fonts, even in Russia, with its Cyrillic alphabet.

The company that owns the licenses, U.S.-based Monotype, initially proposed what the Russians considered to be extortionate prices for a package of popular fonts: Monotype sought 650 euros ($691 at current rates) per individual workstation, according to Kommersant, rather than what the newspaper described as a more typical 3 to 4 euros ($3.20-$4.20).

Yury Sosnin, the lead developer for the Astra Linux team, told the newspaper that in the end, Monotype withdrew from negotiations and refused to sell the licenses. The reason, Kommersant quoted Sosnin as saying, was the sanctions imposed by the United States.

Monotype, which is headquartered in Massachusetts, did not immediately respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.

That put RusBitTech in a bind, Sosnin told the newspaper, because nearly all official documents in Russia use Times New Roman as their standard font. Ultimately, the company was forced to contract with a Moscow typography firm called Paratype to design a font similar to Times New Roman.

It wasn't immediately clear the additional cost to RusBitTech, but Kommersant said company documents showed RusBitTech's contracts with state agencies were worth 1.7 billion rubles in 2014 (around $28 million).

Though relatively minor -- one EU estimate puts the total economic damage to Russia's economy at $5.8 billion -- the case is an illustration of some of the challenges Russia has faced after being hit with Western sanctions in 2014.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been tasked with a policy of "import substitution" -- to build up domestic industries to produce things that are barred from being imported, like Parmesan cheese or Champagne.

The Kremlin has put special emphasis on replacing foreign-built or -designed computer hardware and software -- such as Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows operating system -- with Russian systems.

In March, President Vladimir Putin ordered state-owned companies to buy or license Russian software rather than foreign programs.

In September, the Moscow city government announced it would be replacing the Microsoft operating systems on its computer networks and earlier phased out a Cisco Systems technology used for surveillance cameras.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.