Diplomats warned off Y2K Russia

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BRITISH DIPLOMATS in Moscow are being told to consider carefully whether they invite family and friends to Russia during the New Year period, because of concerns about the millennium bug.

The advice, contained in an internal memo circulated within the British embassy, comes amid widespread anxiety about what might happen as the new century dawns in Russia, considered one of the countries most vulnerable to Y2K problems.

Western specialists say that although Russia has sharply stepped up its efforts to counter technology failures, it has neither the time, the money, nor the expertise to protect itself adequately. Key areas are considered to be at risk, such as transport, electricity supply, telecommunications and heating systems.

No one seems to be predicting a failure involving Russia's nuclear stockpile, which Moscow insists is safe. But there are concerns about the readiness of other parts of the infrastructure, including air traffic control, banking, telephones and back-up generators at nuclear power stations.

A report to the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow by experts with Terralink, an IT firm specialising in millennium bug issues, concluded that it was "very likely that major infrastructure providers upon whom everybody depends, will experience Y2K failures".

Analysts say telephone and power blackouts are high on the list of potential failures. These could cause still more serious complications: if, for example, there are blow-outs on the three main electricity grids and the power output falls below a specific level, nuclear power stations must - for safety reasons - be disconnected from the grid. The stations would switch to back-up diesel generators to keep their cooling systems going - thus avoiding an explosion.

The Russians have claimed they can correct power-drop problems by cutting off low-priority customers. But some analysts worry that if nuclear power stations are shut down, their back-up generators may fail to work, as happened at Kola nuclear power station some years ago. "I haven't got an awful lot of confidence," said one Y2K pundit. "They ought to test their generators now."

The Russians, whose officials have said tests are now being carried out, are maintaining a confident front. Ilya Klebanov, a deputy prime minister, told a commission on millennium problems that "nothing awful is expected in Russia, and problems will be resolved by December". But as late as May his predecessor, Vladimir Bulgak, was complaining that 20 government departments had not yet submitted plans on tackling the millennium bug.

Some multinationals with operations in Russia, such as Mars, have been stockpiling raw materials. One Moscow-based Western analyst, said: "There is no remote possibility of the Russians being ready for this. They haven't spent the money or done the work."

Asked about the memo to diplomats, Michael Haddock, chief press officer at the British embassy in Moscow, said: "It exists, but it is internal. It is not a directive from the Foreign Office." But, he said, it did "reflect the thinking at the moment".