Science: How networking could have helped the coup: Systems ordered by the Russian parliament might have aided the deputies in their recent bid for power, writes Robert Farish

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The Independent Online
Moscow is still shocked by events at the Russian parliament building on 4 October. An insight into how the parliament saw its future comes from a surprising source: the analysis of orders it recently placed for computer equipment.

Before it was dissolved at the beginning of September, the parliament (then still called the Supreme Soviet) spent a a great deal of money on new computer systems. Computer Business Russia has established that during that time three supplier companies signed contracts with the Supreme Soviet; two of the contracts are said to be worth more than dollars 1m (pounds 670,000). And since the parliament was known to favour a number of suppliers, there may well be others. The equipment was all paid for and the companies are waiting to deliver these systems, although none of them are sure to whom they will be delivered.

The buying spree included at least three sizable information technology contracts. Digital Equipment Corporation Russia won a contract for a large systems-integration project linking several personal computer (PC) networks and providing multiple access to data bases, also to install an electronic mail system at the White House and extend it to regional governments. Hewlett Packard Moscow was paid for 100 laser printers.

A Russian systems integration company, LVS Systems, has an order that included 120 Compaq PCs. Alexander Gromov, LVS's general manager, says the Supreme Soviet approached his company and ordered a network solution including UNIX, Novell and Oracle software. The deal also included consultancy and training.

These were not impulse buys by a group who knew their end was near. They were long-term contracts that included many 'intangibles' such as training and consulting. If undertaken, they would have linked hundreds of computers inside the parliament building, enabling the legislators to pool information on a grand scale.

By connecting the White House to regional governments in the Russian Federation, the Supreme Soviet would be able to coordinate its Moscow activities with its allies up and down the country. It would also have provided the means to canvass support from wavering regional officials quickly and efficiently. One of the biggest problems for both sides in the lead up to 4 October was the lack of efficient communication with the rest of the country. The natural caution of representatives in the regions, always waiting to see what would happen in the Russian capital, worked in President Yeltsin's favour.

Each time parliament wanted to vote on an issue of national importance it had to round up its deputies before issues could be debated or decisions taken. An effective electronic mail system would have enabled parliamentary leaders to simplify this process. From the evidence of computers bought for the White House, it seems that had President Yeltsin waited much longer before acting against his rivals, they would have been better organised and the challenge to his rule would have been more formidable.

Business confidence in Russia may be shaken by the White House siege but the effect on the computer business will be minimal. The modernisation of the infrastructure of national and local government largely depends on money from the European Community and the World Bank. Grants from these sources to central and eastern Europe fuelled a surge in computer contracts in 1990 and 1991. However, the computer business in Russia has been waiting for almost four years for similar grants.

Where the Russian market is strongest, it is largely impervious to Western confidence. With expensive systems, by far the strongest market is the commercial banks. Insulated from foreign competition, Russian commercial banks have flourished through the break-up of the Soviet Union, hyper-inflation and financial and political uncertainty. They are buying SWIFT connections that enable them to link up with the international system of inter-bank fund transfer, as well as treasury systems, back office systems and, in the case of larger banks, branch automation systems.

The other major market is also largely impervious to foreign confidence. All the indications are that sales of PCswill rise. In September Hewlett Packard and Compaq reported one of their best months in this market. As entrepreneurs continue to set up businesses, unit sales will continue growing no matter who is in the White House.

This month sees the launch of the Russian Microsoft Windows program which makes the use of IBM-compatible computers easier through graphics - for example, instead of an index of files, each file will be represented in graphic form as a page with the name of the file written underneath it.

Demand for the program has killed off sales of computers based on the 80286 processor in the West - more than 16 million people now use Windows. The effect in Russia will be similar, and is set to significantly boost sales as customers upgrade to computers able to run the program. A graphical Russian language interface will make computer technology accessible to thousands of people previously put off by strange commands in English.

Printing in Russian will become enormously simplified - previously getting applications to print in Cyrillic was a nightmare. Windows contains a large catalogue of printer drivers which means it will give access to the world's most popular computer printers to many people for the first time.

The author is the editor of 'Computer Business Russia'.

(Photograph omitted)