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Yeltsin Fires Chemical Warfare Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anatoly Kuntsevich, the retired army general assigned to abolish Russia’s chemical and biological warfare programs but lately accused of working to prolong them, was dismissed from his post Thursday.

A one-sentence Kremlin announcement said only that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin fired Kuntsevich for “numerous and gross violations” of his duties as chairman of Yeltsin’s Committee on Problems of Chemical and Biological Disarmament.

Yeltsin had come under criticism at home and in the West for allowing Kuntsevich, a soldier-scientist who once ran the Soviet chemical weapons-making complex, to oversee the destruction of his own empire--tens of thousands of tons of poisonous nerve gas and mustard gas stored at seven heavily guarded sites across Russia.

Kuntsevich was in charge of complying with Moscow’s 1990 agreement with the United States to stop producing such weapons and slash their respective arsenals to 5,000 metric tons by the year 2002. His duties expanded last year when Russia joined the United States and 155 other nations in signing a treaty requiring the destruction of all poison gas by 2005.

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But last month, Valery Menshikov, a consultant to Yeltsin’s National Security Council, raised questions about the retired general’s credibility. Menshikov said Kuntsevich had understated the weapons stockpile, officially reported as 40,000 metric tons. Unofficial estimates in Moscow put the stockpile at 70,000 metric tons.

Russian scientists have accused the military of mishandling the stockpile, exposing millions of people to poisons as a result of testing, leakage or improper dumping in recent years.

Despite $55 million in U.S. aid commitments, the Russian disarmament effort has been stalled by inefficiency, grass-roots resistance to building of weapons destruction facilities and the nation’s economic woes. While the United States has begun destroying its arsenal of 30,000 metric tons, Russia has delayed its first steps until 1997.

“The Russian program has gone nowhere,” Amy E. Smithson, a chemical weapons specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “There is no plan. Everything has been done with false starts. Officials seem to be more interested in lining their own pockets than getting the job done.”

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The immediate reason for Kuntsevich’s dismissal was unclear. But it came shortly after he lost a celebrated legal and political battle with one of his chief critics, a Russian chemist named Vil S. Mirzayanov.

Mirzayanov announced in October, 1992, that Russia was testing a new generation of chemical weapons after having signed agreements banning them. He said he helped develop a new nerve toxin until his conscience made him stop.

The chemist was arrested and put on trial for disclosing state secrets, with Kuntsevich as a chief accuser. Amid an outcry of protest from human rights groups and foreign governments, including the Clinton Administration, the charges against him were dropped a month ago.

He continues to insist that Russia is developing new chemical weapons, despite Yeltsin’s repeated assurances to Western leaders that such research has been halted.

London’s Sunday Times echoed the chemist’s assertion last month, saying three Russian defectors to the West had reported steps by the military, behind Yeltsin’s back, to develop biological weapons of mass destruction, including a “super-plague powder” for which the West has no antidote. The newspaper said the powder was so powerful that 440 pounds sprayed from an aircraft could kill up to 500,000 people.

Although Russia’s Defense Ministry promptly denied the report, weapons specialists in Moscow and Washington said it may have focused Yeltsin’s attention on the controversial Kuntsevich.

“Russian officials need to recognize how their lackluster performance in planning a chemical weapons destruction program and how these charges--placed in the context of the Soviet compliance record--look from the outside,” Smithson said in an address last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mirzayanov, the whistle-blowing chemist, said he hopes that the Kremlin announcement means that “the president has finally listened to our criticism.”

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Yeltsin’s announcement named no successor.


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