Russian Weaponeers Take to the Streets

Moscow--Unrest in the Russian academic scientific community has spilled over into the nuclear sector. Earlier today, some 100 scientists representing 30 nuclear research centers picketed the White House, the headquarters of the council of ministers, demanding back pay and more funds for research. The demonstrations followed a protest by the same group yesterday outside the Russian Finance Ministry and similar protests this fall by academic scientists.

During the Soviet era, the nuclear research centers paid relatively high salaries and provided fringe benefits such as nice apartments unavailable in other parts of the country. Thus facilities such as the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, the Institute of High-Energy Physics in Protvino, and the Research Institute of Experimental Physics in Arzamas-16 were able to lure some of the best scientists. Since perestroika, however, support for military research has nearly ground to a halt, as has much of the research at these institutes.

This year, the 30 nuclear research institutes and associated nuclear industrial complexes should have received 5 trillion rubles ($906 million). Instead, the labs claim to have received just $562 million, or 62% of their funds, most of which was committed to manufacturing projects and paying utility bills. And the 1997 federal budget allots just $362 million to the nuclear complex, or 40% of this year's planned budget. "This is not enough even to fulfill our international obligations on dismantling nuclear warheads," says Vladimir Kashkin, deputy chair of a trade union that represents nuclear industry employees.

Workers have gone without salary at some institutes for as long as 6 months, says Kashkin. Banks have frozen the accounts of several institutes, preventing two Siberian ones from sending representatives to the Moscow protest. "The only way of putting pressure on the government in order to get the debts paid back is mass actions of the employees," Kashkin says.

In its 2 days of protests, Kashkin says, the trade union wanted to get across to the government the message that the nuclear centers are sitting on a time bomb. Unpaid employees are becomingly increasingly depressed, he says, which suggest to him and other officials that the unstable situation could "burst out of control" at any time. In an ominous warning, Kashkin says, "A hungry employee of the nuclear complex could make Russia forget about Chechnya."