WASHINGTON -- The Moscow hub for an international organization established to prevent the proliferation of WMD expertise from Russia will continue operations in that country for another four years (see GSN, April 18).
The six-member governing board of the International Science and Technology Center unanimously voted on June 28 to allow the facility to continue overseeing and hosting existing scientific efforts until 2015, according to the facility's latest newsletter.
"The center will stay open in Russia until 2015 in order to finalize ongoing projects," the document states. Board members -- Canada, the European Union, Japan, Russia, the United States and Kazakhstan -- also decided to gradually shift the main facility's activities to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where the organization's second-largest branch office is located, it adds.
The Moscow center opened in 1994 as an effort to halt the spread of WMD know-how by providing weapons scientists and engineers in the former Soviet Union with grants and hands-on resources to redirect their talents to basic research and other civilian projects. Today it boasts a nearly 200-person staff and thousands of pieces of research equipment.
The center's 2010 annual report shows that participating scientists were involved in a range of efforts, including developing better forms of radiation detection, building high-tech prosthesis and studying climate change.
In addition to its Moscow and Almaty locations, the organization has branch offices in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The center might seek to "reinforce" its presence in the Caucasus by further developing one of those sites, though "much depends on further developments," according to ISTC spokesman Sebastien Dakin. He did not elaborate.
Last August, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree announcing that the government would withdraw from the international organization sometime in the future. Under the agreement that created the center, the main facility in Moscow would have at most six months to operate once Russia released a formal withdrawal declaration.
Russian withdrawal is now expected to take place sometime in 2015.
International observers since last August had been concerned the Russian government would release the document soon, possibly forcing the Moscow office to shut its doors before the end of the calendar year.
However, the idea that Moscow would issue that six-month decree "had faded from our expectations," according to a U.S. State Department official. The decision to wait "was not unexpected. As a matter of fact, it was quite in line with the assurances we got in recent months," the official added in a Thursday interview.
The decision by the Kremlin to delay submission of the declaration by four years allows Russian scientists and researchers to complete their projects as intended, said the official who was not cleared to speak on the record about the center.
"You can't say, 'Everyone, what you were planning to do over the course of 30 months now you're going to do in six months,'" the official said in reference to U.S.-backed projects within Russia. "It just isn't doable otherwise you would have done it in six months to begin with."
The official said the other former Soviet states "are solidly for continuation of this kind of cooperation."
A spokesman at Rosatom, the Russian state-run energy agency that coordinates many projects with the center, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
The international organization is estimated to have assisted roughly 76,000 scientists and engineers to date. Last year the center awarded more than $25 million in grants to about 11,000 scientists and experts in all recipient states.
The United States has donated about $1 billion to the organization over its lifetime. The international hub also receives money from Japan, Norway and South Korea.
"The board has taken a number of decisions securing the future of ISTC in the region. The main aim is now to implement these decisions and to plan future activities together with our parties and partners," Andriaan van der Meer, the center's executive director, said on Thursday in an e-mail statement to Global Security Newswire.
"Indeed, the situation looks much different now than a year ago," he added.
The organization is supporting more than 350 active projects, including 230 led by Russian research institutes, according to Dakin.
The question of what to do with the facility's nearly 54,000 pieces of laboratory and research equipment "is not yet resolved," he stated.
"We are working to simply transfer the ownership of the equipment to the institutes who carried out the projects," Dakin said. "We don't intend on transferring equipment to other countries."
He noted that governing board members also weighed merging the center with its sister organization, the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine, before choosing the present course of action.
The decision by the Kremlin to allow completion of ongoing ISTC-financed research projects inside the country "tracks perfectly with the Russian Federation's reconception of itself as a donor nation, rather than a recipient nation," said Matthew Rojansky, deputy director for the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"If you want to put your money where your mouth is ... then I would suggest that Russia, rather than essentially removing itself from the ISTC altogether, should actually become a donor" to the center, he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Rojanksy said the Kremlin is likely to have also decided to keep the center's doors open in part because "you had real money on the table and Russian institutions doing non-negligible research that depend on being able to continue receiving support and coordination from the center."
Such motivation would be "more consistent with the Russian government's interest to support its own domestic research operations, which are currently receiving tens of millions of dollars" in assistance, he said.
Rojansky said he hopes that thinking inside the Kremlin would change from viewing hosting a facility such as the International Science and Technology Center from an obligation into a "privilege."