Most defence workers want to flee Russia

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TWO-THIRDS of the work-force in Russia's defence industy would like to find work abroad to escape from near-starvation pay and the growing risk of unemployment, according to an opinon poll published in Moscow.

The possibility of Russian scientists and engineers selling their skills overseas, to countries such as Iraq or Libya, has become one of the main preoccupations of the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The poll, published by the Moscow News newspaper, shows most would prefer jobs in the West, but one-fifth said they would work for rogue regimes in the developing world. The desire to go overseas is strongest among younger, highly trained staff.

More dangerous than the possibility of skilled technicians hawking talents abroad, however, is the threat to Russia itself. The country is not only rapidly losing its best brains in all fields, but rising discontent among those left behind, particularly in defence industries, poses a grave challenge to President Boris Yeltsin's stumbling free-market reforms.

Russia's Labour Ministry says 100,000 Russians have already left the country this year and another 1.5 million are ready to do the same. A further 4.5 million, according to the migration department chief, Vladimir Volokh, are 'earnestly considering the possibility'. How many have left from the defence sector alone is not known. Its huge size and political clout, however, make it an important source of potential opposition to the government.

Figures for the size of its work-force vary from six to 14 million people, depending on the definition of what constitutes a military factory. According to Mr Yeltsin's adviser on military factories, Mikhail Malei, the defence industry - which provides most of Russia's television sets as well as its guns - supports 36 million people when families are included.

With military production providing one-third of all jobs in St Petersburg and up to half in several other large cities, the defence industry has extraordinary political muscle. But it has lost the security and privileges once guaranteed by the central plan and there is fierce resentment in many of the factories under the former Soviet Union's Military Industrial Commission (VPK).

State arms orders are down by 60-80 per cent this year over 1991; research and development funding has fallen by two-thirds. Official statistics predict one million jobless defence industry workers by the end of the year. Ambitious but barely started plans of conversion to civilian production threaten redundancies.

Even those who keep their jobs receive meagre rewards. Valentin Tikhonov, a researcher at the Institute of Employment Problems who conducted the Moscow News poll, estimates that 80 per cent of workers in military factories earn less than 4,000 roubles (about pounds 7) each week, well below the national average. 'They are almost unanimous in believing the situation is becoming worse because of incompetent economic management,' says Mr Tikhonov.

Defence workers have held protests in Moscow while their bosses have banded together under Arkady Volsky's Russian League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs to form a lobby bent on slowing, if not derailing, the government's economic plans.

Fear among defence industry chiefs that reform would eliminate their privileges and power was one of the main triggers for last year's hardline Communist putsch. Though chastened by its failure, they are still fighting to protect their turf, securing key positions in government and diluting free-market reforms.

Their allies include not only Mr Volsky but Yuri Skovov, the secretary of Russia's recently strengthened Security Council and widely regarded as the country's most powerful figure after Mr Yeltsin.

The strength of the military-industrial lobby has put the Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, on the defensive. Last month he was forced to relax spending constraints and grant the defence sector an extra 13.2bn roubles. Plans to turn military factories over to civilian production have also been slowed, with the conversion programme now expected to take at least 15 years instead of four as originally planned.