GLOBAL SECURITY NEWSWIRE. AUGUST 14, 2009. By Martin Matishak
WASHINGTON -- Russia recently forced an international nonprofit organization to close offices intended to ensure transparency in the operations of one of the country's largest chemical weapons destruction sites (see GSN, July 22).
Some worry that the June 30 shuttering of three Green Cross International offices devoted to community outreach at the chemical stockpile facility and associated demilitarization plant might be an attempt to minimize oversight as Russia accelerates operations to meet the 2012 disarmament deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
"It's the shot across the bow that they're going to miss 2012, they just haven't said so publicly," said Paul Walker, security and sustainability chief for the organization's U.S. arm, Global Green USA. "The site requires independent oversight and accountability. Without that, you risk safety and security."
The environmental organization was founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993 and has opened offices at all but one of Russia's seven chemical-weapon stockpile sites.
The offices at Shchuchye were opened in 1996 with the intent to "build consensus within the local and regional population ... concerning the importance of safe and sound chemical weapon demilitarization," according to Walker. There are 15 villages with roughly 40,000 residents near the site, nearly 1,000 miles east of Moscow.
Specific tasks varied over the years but have included preparing informational programs and materials such as seminars, press briefings, expert workshops, brochures and poster boards, he said.
Green Cross established a Citizens' Advisory Commission, which met monthly to help address issues related to the site, Walker said. The organization also provided public information to "all [local] residents and officials in order to help them engage federal officials in charge of the project," he told Global Security Newswire. He did not specify what authority, if any, the commission had.
Outreach programs "must start long before ground is broken for these large industrial facilities in order for all stakeholders, including local citizens most directly impacted by the construction and most threatened by the chemical agents, to have a major say in the design and planning of the facility," Walker said.
Local residents were involved in selecting the location of the new demilitarization facility, which was built farther away than planned from some of the local villages in order to reduce the chance that community members would be exposed to a chemical agent following an accident, according to Walker.
There were eight to 10 local residents employed at the three offices, he said. The offices did not employ any foreign citizens.
Shutting down the offices "would seem to point to the Russian government's desire to no longer be transparent and to exclude the local community in the operations of the facility," Walker told GSN.
He said Russian officials might believe they can "mask" any serious problems in plant operations and thereby save time in striving to stay on schedule for demilitarization.
"With less transparency and stakeholder involvement, federal officials could now, for example, hide any dangerous shortcuts or risky steps they might take which would potentially endanger workers and/or local residents," he wrote today by e-mail, following an earlier telephone interview.
The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions submitted earlier this week regarding Green Cross.
Russia said last week it had destroyed 37 percent of its chemical warfare agents, a world's-largest arsenal that once stood at 40,000 metric tons of material (see GSN, Aug. 10). The government has said repeatedly that it intends to destroy the entire stockpile, as required, by April 2012.
"We will meet all deadlines," said Gen. Nikolai Abroskin, head of the Russian Federal Special Purpose Construction Agency.
Shutting down public outreach at Shchuchye suggests that Russia hopes to obscure the fact that it cannot meet the CWC destruction deadline, said chemical-weapon expert Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow in the Washington office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He added that Moscow continues to make public statements to the contrary to "save face politically."
This is the latest example in a growing trend by the Kremlin to obfuscate on security matters, Tucker said.
The Shchuchye storage depot holds 5,400 metric tons of nerve agent materials in roughly 2 million munitions, according to a report to U.S. lawmakers from the Defense Department, which assisted construction of the disposal plant through its Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
The destruction facility is designed with two chemical weapons processing buildings: one built by the United States with a destruction capacity of up to 500 metric tons per year and one built by Russia's Federal Industry Agency with an additional destruction capacity of up to 700 metric tons per year, the report states.
The Russian complex opened in May and is undergoing start-up testing. The U.S. building is slated to open next year. Weapons disposal has not yet begun.
The day after the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first building, the site's Russian project manager told CTR officials that he wanted all outside public outreach wrapped up by the end of June and that Russia would assume such efforts, Walker told GSN.
California-based Parsons Corp. for the last decade has managed all U.S. support for the project, including site clearing, engineering and planning and construction. The firm employed Green Cross as a subcontractor and told the nonprofit organization it had to shut down its three community offices and lay off its 10 local employees by June 30, Walker said.
That date coincided with the expiration of the Green Cross contract with Parsons for the public outreach offices. Russian law requires that employees be given 90 days notice before termination. Since the decision cut that time by two-thirds, Parsons allowed the nonprofit to keep the employees on the payroll until Aug. 30, but said they could not perform any work.
Walker estimated that Green Cross spent $6 million in the last 13 years for public outreach at the site. The United States has spent more than $1 billion on the disposal plant, according to Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
Apart from the United States, the international community has committed more than $210 million for infrastructure and other support to construct the nerve-agent destruction facility, according to the CTR report. Russia spent $774.3 million on chemical weapons elimination in 2007, with $52.9 million devoted to Shchuchye. Total Russian funding for the facility to date is $254.2 million, the document states.