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    Science Codex / November 6, 2014
    For tiger populations, a new threat
    Помимо уже имеющихся проблем, амурским тиграм угрожает новая опасность - вирус чумы плотоядных, в последние годы поражающий все новые и новые виды животных. Специалисты из Общества охраны дикой природы (WCS) совместно с учеными Сихотэ-Алинского биосферного заповедника и Приморской государственной сельскохозяйственной академии изучили случаи заражения и смоделировали ситуацию, позволившую оценить степень риска вымирания тигров. Оказалось, что наиболее подвержены опасности малые группы до 25 особей, из которых как раз и состоит амурская популяция.

Along with the pressures of habitat loss, poaching and depletion of prey species, a new threat to tiger populations in the wild has surfaced in the form of disease, specifically, canine distemper virus (CDV). According to a new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its partners, CDV has the potential to be a significant driver in pushing the animals toward extinction.
While CDV has recently been shown to lead to the deaths of individual tigers, its long-term impacts on tiger populations had never before been studied.
The authors evaluated these impacts on the Amur tiger population in Russia's Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Zapovednik (SABZ), where tiger numbers declined from 38 individuals to 9 in the years 2007 to 2012. In 2009 and 2010, six adult tigers died or disappeared from the reserve, and CDV was confirmed in two dead tigers - leading scientists to believe that CDV likely played a role in the overall decline of the population. Joint investigations of CDV have been an ongoing focus of WCS and Russian scientists at Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik and veterinarians at the regional Primorye Agricultural College since its first appearance in tigers in 2003.
A key finding of this study: Modeling shows that smaller populations of tigers were found to be more vulnerable to extinction by CDV. Populations consisting of 25 individuals were 1.65 times more likely to decline in the next 50 years when CDV was present. The results are profoundly disturbing for global wild tigers given that in most sites where wild tigers persist they are limited to populations of less than 25 adult breeding individuals.
The scientists used computer modeling to simulate the effects of CDV infection on isolated tiger populations of various sizes and through a series of transmission scenarios. These included tiger-to-tiger transmission and transmission through predation on CDV-infected domestic dogs and/or infected wild carnivores (such as foxes, raccoon dogs and badgers). High and low-risk scenarios for the model were created based on variation in the prevalence of CDV and the tigers' contact with sources of exposure.
Results showed that CDV infection increased the 50-year extinction probability of tigers in SABZ as much as 55.8 percent compared to CDV-free populations of equivalent size.
"Although we knew that individual tigers had died from CDV in the wild, we wanted to understand the risk the virus presents to whole populations," said WCS veterinarian Martin
Gilbert. "Tigers are elusive, however, and studying the long-term impact of risk factors is very challenging. Our model, based on tiger ecology data collected over 20 years in SABZ, explored the different ways that tigers might be exposed to the virus and how these impact the extinction risk to tiger populations over the long term."
WCS Russia Program Director Dale Miquelle said, "Tigers face an array of threats throughout their range, from poaching to competition with humans for space and for food. Consequently, many tiger populations have become smaller and more fragmented, making them much more susceptible to diseases such as CDV. While we must continue to focus on the primary threats of poaching and habitat destruction, we now must also be prepared to deal with the appearance of such diseases in the future."
Priorities for future research, according to the authors, include identifying the domestic and wild carnivore species that contribute to the CDV reservoir, and those that are the most likely sources of infection for tigers. Tigers are too rare to sustain the virus in the long term, so CDV must rely on more abundant carnivore species to persist in the environment. Understanding the structure of the CDV reservoir will be a critical first step in identifying measures that might prevent or control future outbreaks.
In addition, since we now know that small tiger populations are at greater risk to diseases such as CDV than larger populations, conservation strategies focusing on connectedness between populations become all the more important.

* * *
    Reuters / Thu Nov 6, 2014
    Ancient Russian's DNA sheds light on Neanderthal interbreeding
    • By Will Dunham
    Международная команда палеогенетиков (при участии российских ученых из Музея антропологии и этнографии имени Петра Великого РАН) расшифровала геном верхнепалеолитического человека со стоянки Костёнки XIV, чьи останки были найдены в 1954 г. Возраст представителя Homo Sapiens оказался примерно 36200-38700 лет, а неандертальская примесь в генах - чуть выше, чем у современных европейцев.
    Статья "Genomic structure in Europeans dating back at least 36,200 years" опубликована в журнале Nature.

(Reuters) - DNA extracted from the skeleton of a man who lived in Russia about 37,000 years ago is giving scientists new insights into the genetic history of Europeans including interbreeding that took place with Neanderthals more than 50,000 years ago.
Scientists said on Thursday they used DNA taken from the man's left tibia to sequence the genome of one of the earliest known Europeans.
Genetic analysis of the Kostenki man, named after the Russian village where his skeleton was first unearthed 60 years ago, enabled a more precise estimate of when Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals who had colonized the region thousands of years earlier, the scientists said.
It also provided evidence of contact earlier than previously known between European hunter-gatherers and people from the Middle East whose descendants developed agriculture.
And it showed that by the time the man lived in what is now Kostenki village in westernmost Russia 36,200 to 38,700 years ago, the people residing in western Eurasia had already split from the lineage that populated East Asia.
The study of ancient human DNA like that extracted from the Kostenki man, facilitated by technological advances in recent years, is allowing scientists to unravel events that paved the way for modern human populations. His was the second oldest genome of our species ever sequenced.
"We show that this individual is related to modern Europeans. We also show that much of the genetic structure present in today's Europe dates back at least to the time when this individual died," said Rasmus Nielsen, a computational biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Copenhagen.
"We thought that these (genetic) components came in at different times through European history after the first modern humans came into Europe. And now we can see that they were already there from the beginning," added Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
When the ancestors of today's Europeans trekked out of Africa and into Eurasia some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, they encountered Neanderthals. They scientists found that the Kostenki man had a small percentage of Neanderthal genes, confirming that interbreeding had already occurred.
The scientists used the genetic data to determine that the interbreeding occurred around 54,000 years ago. As a result of this mingling, everyone with Eurasian ancestry - from Chinese to Scandinavians to the native peoples of the Americas - have some Neanderthal DNA.
But the researchers found no evidence of further interbreeding even though the groups lived alongside the Neanderthals for thousands of years more.
The robust, large-browed Neanderthals prospered across Europe and Asia from about 350,000 to 40,000 years ago, but disappeared in the period after Homo sapiens arrived.
Despite an outdated reputation as our species' dimwitted cousins, scientists say Neanderthals were highly intelligent as shown by their complex hunting methods, likely use of spoken language and symbolic objects, and a sophisticated use of fire.
"Were Neanderthal populations dwindling very fast? Did modern humans still encounter them? We were originally surprised to discover there had been interbreeding. Now the question is, why so little? It's an extraordinary finding that we don't understand yet," added University of Cambridge human evolution professor Robert Foley.
The research was published in the journal Science.

* * *
    RedOrbit / November 9, 2014
    Mummified Bison Unearthed In Siberia
    • Chuck Bednar
    В Якутии найдена почти полностью сохранившаяся мумия степного зубра (вымерший в конце плейстоцена вид из рода бизонов) возрастом около 9300 лет. Исследованиями древнего парнокопытного занимается международная команда ученых из России и США под руководством Натальи Сердюк из Палеонтологического института РАН.
    Статья "Complete 9000 Year Old Frozen Bison Mummy found in Siberia" опубликована в Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Researchers have uncovered the several thousand year old, mummified remains of an extinct species of bison in a region of eastern Siberia known as the Yana-Indigirka Lowland, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) in Berlin, Germany.
The mummy was a near-complete specimen of Steppe bison and was discovered by a team of experts led by Dr. Natalia Serduk of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The creature is reportedly 9,300 years old and has a complete brain, heart, blood vessels, digestive system and even intact fur, though the researchers explained that some of the organs have shrunk significantly over time. A necropsy of the animal found no obvious cause of death.
"Normally, what you find with the mummies of megafauna in North America or Siberia is partial carcasses. They're partly eaten or destroyed because they're lying in the permafrost for tens of thousands of years," Olga Potapova of the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs in South Dakota told Live Science reporter Elizabeth Palermo. "But the mummy was preserved so well that it [earned] a record for the level of its preservation."
According to Discovery News reporter Jennifer Viegas, the creature has been dubbed the "Yukagir bison mummy" based on the region where it was discovered, and while the exact cause of its demise cannot be established, Dr. Serduk's team believes that the lack of fat around its abdomen indicates the creature could have died from starvation.
"The exclusively good preservation of the Yukagir bison mummy allows direct anatomical comparisons with modern species of bison and cattle, as well as with extinct species of bison that were gone at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary," Dr. Evgeny Maschenko of the Paleontological Institute in Moscow, one of the researchers involved in the project, said in a statement Thursday.
Compared to the bison species currently found in the US, the Steppe bison (which died out shortly after the Ice Age) sported far larger horns and a second back hump, Viegas said. Bison such as this one were common features in Stone Age cave art, and the remains of a woolly rhino, a 35,000-39,000-year-old horse, and a mammoth were also found at in the same region as this new bison mummy was discovered, she added.
"The Yukagir bison mummy became the third find out of four now known complete mummies of this species discovered in the world, and one out of two adult specimens that are being kept preserved with internal organs and stored in frozen conditions," said Potapova.
"The next steps to be done include further examination of the bison's gross anatomy, and other detailed studies on its histology, parasites, and bones and teeth," she added.
"We expect that the results of these studies will reveal not only the cause of death of this particular specimen, but also might shed light on the species behavior and causes of its extinction."
As Dominique Mosbergen of The Huffington Post pointed out, this is not the first time that scientists have discovered prehistoric bison remains. In 2012, a pair of researchers from the University of Alaska researchers found a nearly-complete Steppe bison skeleton that had died out approximately 40,000 years ago, calling it "the kind of thing we've always dreamed about finding."
As for the new study, Dr. Serduk, Dr. Maschenko and Potapova were joined on the project by researchers from the Yakutian Academy of Sciences in Yakutsk, Russia; the Yakut State Museum of History and Culture of the North in Yakutsk, Russia; the Institute of Human Morphology of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow, Russia; the Yakutian State Agricultural Academy in Yakutsk, Russia; and the Diamond and Precious Metals Geology Institute at the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences in Yakutsk, Russia.

© 2002-2014 redOrbit.com. All rights reserved.
* * *
    The Guardian / Tuesday 11 November 2014
    Largest international study into safety of GM food launched by Russian NGO
    Thousands of rats will be fed Monsanto maize diets in a $23m, three-year "Factor GMO" study into long-term health effects of GM food and associated pesticide.
    • John Vidal
    Российские ученые и активисты запускают трехлетний эксперимент "Фактор ГМО" по исследованию долгосрочного воздействия генно-модифицированных продуктов и пестицидов на здоровье млекопитающих.

A Russian group working with scientists is set to launch what they call the world's largest and most comprehensive long-term health study on a GM food.
The $25m three-year experiment will involve scientists testing thousands of rats which will be fed differing diets of a Monsanto GM maize and the world's most widely-used herbicide which it it is engineered to be grown with.
The organisers of the Factor GMO [genetically modified organism] study, announced in London on Tuesday and due to start fully next year, say it will investigate the long-term health effects of a diet of a GM maize developed by US seed and chemical company Monsanto.
"It will answer the question: is this GM food, and associated pesticide, safe for human health?" said Elena Sharoykina, a campaigner and co-founder of the Russian national association for genetic safety (Nags), the co-ordinator of the experiment.
According to the Nags, the experiment will try to establish whether the GM maize and its associated herbicide cause cancers, reduce fertility or cause birth defects. The scientists also want to know whether the mixture of chemicals present in Roundup (Monsanto's tradename for its glyphosate herbicide) are more or less toxic than its active ingredient glyphosate.
Farmers, governments, scientists and consumers around the world have been involved in an intense debate since GM foods were introduced in 1994. But while there have been many thousands of studies conducted, mostly by GM companies, which show that there is no health risk, government regulators have not required evidence of long-term safety and deep mistrust has built between different "sides".
"We would clearly support well-conducted, hypothesis-driven science. If the science is conducted according to OECD guidelines and shows that there are hazards with a particular event, then the public will understand that," said Prof Huw Jones, senior research scientist at Rothamsted Research, which specialises in agricultural research and is the only research institute in the UK currently carrying out a GM crop trial.
Oxana Sinitsyna, deputy science director at the Sysin research institute of human ecology and environmental health which is part of the Russian ministry of health, one of the three scientists on the Factor GMO study's review board, said: "The scale and format of this research project will allow us to create a really objective and comprehensive data set on the mechanics of the impacts of a GM diet on the health of living organisms over the long term.
"From a scientific point of view the 'Factor GMO' project is highly ambitious, which makes it very interesting, for both the public and for the scientists involved."
Bruce Blumberg, another board member, who is a biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, said: "The cultivation of herbicide resistant crops is widespread in the US, and the use of the herbicides to which these crops are resistant has increased many-fold in the decades since they were introduced. There is a notable lack of published, peer-reviewed data on their safety, as well as data on the safety of the increased use of herbicides with which they are grown."
The planned study will have no input from the biotech industry or the anti-GM movement, said Sharoykina."Comprehensive scientific safety studies on GMOs and their related pesticides are long overdue. All previous studies caused controversy for various reasons: choice of animal, insufficient statistics, duration of tests, research parameters, and researchers' connections to the anti-GMO movement or the biotech industry.
"This study is intended to remedy the situation. The project organisers have considered all of the points of disagreement and distrust surrounding this subject." She added that Nags would not have any involvement in the scientific process.
Most of the $25m has been raised, say the organisers, but the names of sponsors and funders will not be revealed until the experiment starts fully next year.
Fiorella Belpoggi, a cancer specialist with the Ramazzini insistute in Italy and a board member of the study said: "This is not at all an anti-GM study. We are being neutral. We don't know if it's good or bad. Maybe in the future I will be a cheerleader with Monsanto. But I want science to find out".
The experiment, which will be conducted in western Europe and Russia, was cautiously welcomed by both GM sceptics and proponents of the technology. However, Monsanto did not respond to invitations for an interview.
Karl Haro von Mogel, a public research geneticist in Madison, said on the Biofortified website: "If they conduct the study and publish it in the peer-reviewed literature, it can make a contribution to the existing literature. They frame the need for this study by saying that 'there has never been a scientific study that is comprehensive enough to give them a clear answer regarding the safety for human health of any one GM food - until now'. The study has not been done yet, so this is putting the cart before the horse."
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: "There is still scientific uncertainty regarding what effects GM crops could have on the environment and the health of consumers, especially in the long term. If this is a well-designed, transparent and accountable study, then hopefully it can help to fill some of the major gaps in our knowledge of the impacts of GM glyphosate resistant maize and glyphosate on health."
Peter Melchett, policy director with the Soil Association, said: "I welcome this. It has been a scientific fraud that no scientific study like this has been done in the past." Monsanto was contacted for a response but did not reply. In the past it has claimed that trillions of meals have been eaten by consumers without ill effects.
The announcement of the experiment came as British anti-GM campaigners delivered a letter to Downing street signed by US environment groups representing over 50m people, as well as celebrities including Susan Sarandon, Daryl Hannah and Robert Kennedy. The letter warns Britain that the intensive growing of GM crops has caused major environmental problems in the US.
"GM crops have never delivered on their promises to increase yields and profits or to decrease pesticide use. In fact, they have done the opposite with the cost of growing GM crops now greater than conventional crops in the US and pesticide use 24% higher amongst GM farmers than non-GM farmers planting the same crops", says the letter which was delivered by former Labour environment minister Michael Meacher and Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.
Separately on Tuesday, MEPs voted to allow national bans on GM food crops for environmental reasons.

© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.
* * *
    The Guardian / Wednesday 12 November 2014
    Russian research team explores giant Siberian sinkhole
    Team of scientists climbs into 35-metre hole that appeared in remote northern Russia after mystery explosion.
    • Alec Luhn
    Группа ученых вернулась из экспедиции, в ходе которой было исследовано дно ямальского кратера в районе месторождения Бованенково. Исследователи спустились на дно, исследовали стенки кратера и взяли пробы грунта и льда.
    В экспедиции принимали участие сотрудники Института криосферы Земли СО РАН, Российского центра освоения Арктики, МГУ, Института проблем нефти и газа РАН, Ямалспас, Газпром ВНИИГАЗ.

A Russian research team including scientists, a medic and a professional climber has descended to the bottom of a giant sinkhole in northern Siberia in an attempt to discover its origins.
The 35-metre deep sinkhole was discovered in July after an unexplained eruption that flung soil and rock 120 metres from the site. It was initially thought it might be related to fossil fuel exploration, as it is 25 miles from the largest gas field in the region, but after a radar scan of the ground the team said it was most likely to be due to natural causes that would require further research.
The sinkhole was discovered and filmed from a helicopter this summer by oil and gas technicians on the Yamal peninsula, which in the language of its indigenous inhabitants who live north of the Arctic circle means end of the world. Two more unexplained sinkholes have since emerged in the far north of Russia.
The first scientific expedition to the Yamal sinkhole took place in July, but researchers were unable to climb inside and take samples until the sides of the hole and the water on the bottom froze.
The sinkholes have sparked widespread speculation about the causes, ranging from shale gas explosions to meteorite strikes. The regional government has previously said scientists suspect the sinkhole "burst like a bubble" due to gas in the ground.
Vladimir Melnikov, an academic with the Russian Academy of Sciences, blamed the sinkhole on global climate change, arguing that the thawing of frozen rock layers had released a burst of shale gas. Marina Leibman, a researcher with the RAS, said after a previous expedition that the eruption was due to "a buildup of pressure during the freezing and changing volume of certain cavities that held reserves of marsh gas [methane]".
Anton Sinitsky, a geologist for the Russian energy giant Gazprom, theorised after the latest expedition that the sinkhole was caused by the same gas hydrates that have been blamed for the anomalies observed around the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
Like the Bermuda Triangle, the Yamal peninsula has long been a hot spot of unexplained occurrences, with locals often reporting sightings of the abominable snowman.

© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.
* * *
    The New York Times / Nov. 13, 2014
    Russia to Curtail Nuclear Security Efforts With U.S.
    • By Michael R. Gordon
    Россия сообщила о своих планах сократить в будущем году свое участие в совместных с США работах по обеспечению безопасного хранения ядерных материалов на российской территории.

WASHINGTON - Russia has informed the United States that it is planning to reduce its participation next year in a joint effort to secure nuclear materials on Russian territory, a move that could seriously undermine more than two decades of cooperation aimed at ensuring that nuclear bomb components do not fall into the hands of terrorists or a rogue state.
Sergey V. Kirienko, the head of Russia's state nuclear company, has told senior Obama administration officials that no new projects in Russia are "envisioned" in 2015, according to American officials.
The officials still hope to persuade the Russians to continue work next year on some current projects, though Russian officials have yet to agree.
The reduced cooperation is a byproduct of the general downturn in relations between Russia and the United States, which has been compounded by President Vladimir V. Putin's decision to intervene militarily in Ukraine. But it also stems from longstanding concerns among Kremlin hard-liners about a program that brings American nuclear experts to Russia's nuclear sites and that, they fear, may create the impression that Russia is in need of outside help.
Russia also announced last week that it was planning to boycott an international security summit meeting that is to be hosted by President Obama in 2016.
But the message delivered by Mr. Kirienko is the first time that the rising tensions between the Kremlin and the Obama administration have threatened to disrupt some of the practical efforts that the two sides initiated at the end of the Cold War to help Russia safeguard its nuclear materials.
"There is a real danger that 20 years of U.S.-Russian cooperation to secure nuclear material will simply stop at the end of this year, and some of the gains we have made could slip away," said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who, during the administration of Bill Clinton, supervised a classified government study on protecting nuclear materials in Russia.
A senior Obama administration official said the United States still planned to work with the Russians on nuclear security efforts in third countries and hoped to persuade the Russian government to continue cooperation in Russia.
"We would hope that the door can be left open to any and all forms of cooperation in this important area," said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. "If a reasonable project comes up that is on Russian territory, we would hope they would consider it."
The joint American and Russian efforts began in 1991 as fears grew that the collapse of the Soviet Union would make its nuclear weapons vulnerable. As the program has evolved, the United States has spent billions of dollars to finance security upgrades and improve procedures to keep track of nuclear materials, efforts that are intended to guard against the risk that highly enriched uranium or plutonium might be stolen and sold to terrorist groups or rogue states.
"Nuclear security in Russia has improved dramatically since the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union," the Belfer Center at Harvard concluded in a March report. "Unfortunately, sophisticated conspiracies to steal valuable items continue to plague Russia."
Hundreds of buildings in Russia, for example, still contain nuclear material that could be used in weapons. One American and Russian effort has sought to consolidate the material in fewer buildings, while improving the security of transporting nuclear material.
The United States and Russia have also been working to convert Russian research reactors to use low-enriched uranium instead of highly enriched uranium, which is suitable for bomb purposes.
The Energy Department has also helped Russia's customs service install radiation detection equipment at border crossings. Last year, the United States and Russia began narrowing the scope of their efforts. Under a new protocol, Russia's Ministry of Defense stopped participating in projects, which meant an end to American help in destroying Russia's strategic weapons or securing its warheads. But the Energy Department has continued to work with Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear company, and other Russian organizations to improve the security of Russian facilities and materials.
As tensions have grown, however, the prospects for future cooperation have come under a cloud. In September, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department's senior arms control official, led an American delegation to Moscow that sought unsuccessfully to resolve an American allegation that Russia had violated a 1987 Soviet-American treaty banning intermediate-range missiles based on land.
During this visit, Ms. Gottemoeller also met with Mr. Kirienko, the Rosatom chief, and stressed the importance of continued cooperation on nuclear security, despite the tensions in American-Russian relations.
Typically, the Energy Department signs contracts with Russian labs or other institutions on projects to provide security upgrades or training. And Ms. Gottemoeller noted that the Obama administration was concerned about the prospects for joint security efforts if new projects were not agreed on before the current contracts expired at the end of this year, according to accounts by American officials.
Mr. Kirienko said the Russian government did not "envision" that new contracts would be concluded for 2015, though he expressed a willingness to work on nuclear security issues in other countries.
Mr. Kirienko conveyed a similar message that new contracts were not envisioned "under current circumstances" in a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz that was held later in Vienna, officials said.
The administration also plans to encourage efforts to work jointly on nuclear security in countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland and Uzbekistan by repatriating to Russia highly enriched uranium that Moscow supplied to these nations for nuclear research purposes.
There is no indication, however, that the administration plans to reverse its earlier decision to suspend an American-Russian scientific cooperation agreement, which could have included projects on nuclear energy and planetary defense against asteroids, because of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.
Still, some American experts say that a new approach is needed, one that treats Russia more as an equal. By proposing the joint research and development of ways to secure and account for nuclear material or the joint training of teams that test security at nuclear sites, the United States could address some of Russia's complaints and increase the chances that some projects might be sustained, said Dr. Bunn, the Harvard professor.
"I think the United States needs to be actively proposing more fully equal approaches to put Russia in a position of a co-leader on nuclear security, not a state that needs help," he said.

© 2014 The New York Times Company.
* * *
    EurasiaNet / November 14, 2014
    With Russia Building New Spaceport, Will It Need Kazakhstan's Baikonur?
    • By David Trilling
    Продолжит ли Россия использовать Байконур после постройки космодрома "Восточный"?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia suddenly found that its main rocket launch facility was situated in newly independent Kazakhstan. Since then, the two countries have periodically squabbled over the strategic Baikonur Cosmodrome. And now the Kremlin is pouring billions of dollars into a new site in the Far East that President Vladimir Putin says will allow Russia to remain an "independent" space power.
In the closed town of Baikonur, where the engineers live, the idea of Russia's departure does not sit well with locals, ethnic Kazakhs and Russians alike. "It will be a mess," said Adilkhan Kulanov, a utility worker. "Everything works because the Russians are here."
A student says she hopes her Russian university does not close its doors before she graduates. But already the town looks forsaken, not the kind of place that sends rockets into space. Residents complain about heating shortages.
The Soviets built Baikonur at the height of the Cold War as a missile-testing range. These days Russia pays $115 million annually to lease this remote chunk of desert, a parcel of land about the size of the US state of Delaware. While the Russian space program may no longer set the pace when it comes to space exploration, Roscosmos maintains a busy schedule in Kazakhstan. The Russian federal space agency launches 20 to 25 rockets from Baikonur every year, roughly four of them manned Soyuz missions.
Kazakhstan has pushed for more oversight at Baikonur, but that may just be pushing the Russians away. In July 2013, a Proton-M carrier rocket exploded shortly after liftoff. It was the fourth Proton disaster at Baikonur in 14 years, say officials at Kazcosmos, the Kazakh space agency, emphasizing that Proton rockets use especially toxic fuels. Russia has balked at paying for the cleanup, they add. Environmentalists are outraged.
The manned launches confer prestige upon Baikonur, and Kazakhstan - a country that craves international attention - gains status as a space power by default. Since NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, Soyuz missions offer the only route to the International Space Station. NASA pays Roscosmos over $76 million a seat.
Kazakhstani officials stress they do not want Russia to leave, yet the Kazcosmos boss has threatened to tear up the lease. Meanwhile, Russia seems in no mood to play games: many in Moscow believe such a strategic asset as a spaceport should be situated on Russian soil anyway. It is no surprise, then, that Izvestia, a newspaper known to toe the Kremlin line, reported in August that funding to maintain Baikonur would end next year.
Russia is pouring resources into its 400-billion-ruble ($8.5 billion) Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast. During a visit in September, Putin instructed workers to be ready for a test launch next year. By 2020, Roscosmos says, launches at Baikonur should drop from 65 percent of Russia's total to 11 percent.
Optimists say Vostochny will handle manned rockets by 2018. Skeptics call it a boondoggle, and point out that, despite Roscosmos' rapidly growing budget, Russia is careening toward recession. Yuri Karash of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics dismisses Vostochny as "propaganda to show Russia is a great space power."
The project has been dogged by delays, prompting Putin to put it under Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin's direct supervision. Rogozin has installed video cameras and warned workers that he is watching. In keeping with skeptics' expectations, on October 29 a state official in charge of construction was arrested for embezzling $40 million.
Should Russia succeed, it will have built a copy of Baikonur, making the legendary site redundant. And though Russia's Baikonur lease runs to 2050, it can terminate with a year's notice, according to the deputy head of Kazcosmos, Yerkin Shaimagambetov.
Even if Vostochny meets its deadlines, Russia may not leave just yet. For one, there is too much proprietary equipment, including missile silos, says Asif Siddiqi, an expert on the Russian space program at Fordham University. "The place is gigantic. It has tons and tons of pads, tracking stations, control stations. What's going to happen to all that? I think that's something the [Russian] security folks will want to get involved in," Siddiqi told EurasiaNet.org. "That's probably the only bargaining chip the Kazakhs have."
Moreover, as long as Russia continues to use the Soyuz family of rockets for its manned launches, there is a technical rub at Vostochny. A NASA engineer says the terrain around the new cosmodrome is not compatible with the Soyuz's emergency landing protocols.
In some ways, neither Vostochny nor Baikonur is ideal for the Russian space program. Commercial satellite launches (mainly with Proton rockets) drive the Russian space industry. They account for 36 percent of global business, worth $600 million annually, says Rachel Villain of Euroconsult. But it is easier to launch large payloads closer to the equator, where the earth's rotational speed is fastest. Vostochny is at 52 degrees north and Baikonur is at 46 degrees. Since 2011, Russia has launched nine unmanned rockets from the European Space Agency's spaceport in French Guiana (at 5 degrees north).
Kazakh officials complain Russia is not treating them like partners. In 2004, the two countries agreed to work together on the next generation of Russian carrier rocket, the Angara, which would be cleaner than the Proton and launch from Baikonur; Russia was to build the rocket and Kazakhstan the ground facilities. But Russia kept raising the cost of Kazakhstan's contribution, says Shaimagambetov at Kazcosmos, from $223 million to "10 times" that. The deal has fallen apart and next month Russia is scheduled to test the long-delayed Angara from a military facility near the White Sea.
Shaimagambetov says he hopes Russia will stay, at least to use Baikonur as a reserve launch pad. If not, he insists, private Western companies are eager to set up shop at Baikonur. But much of the technology Russia would leave behind is proprietary. "This equipment is not interchangeable," said Karash of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics. "A launch pad is not like a runway that other spacecraft can use."

© 2014 The Open Society Institute.
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    GlobalPost / November 17, 2014
    If you build an innovation hub in Siberia, will they come?
    Russia wants to boost its lagging economy by developing its tech industry, but attracting the key ingredient - people - may be the most difficult part.
    • Dan Peleschuk
    Россия собирается поднимать экономику, развивая индустрию высоких технологий. При этом самой большой трудностью может оказаться нехватка кадров, которые надо не только привлечь, но и удержать.

TOMSK, Russia - If there were ever a place for a cutting-edge innovation hub, this snowbound Siberian outpost with a population of 500,000 probably wouldn't be the first choice. Deep in the Russian hinterland, it stands at the dead end of a train line off the Trans-Siberian railway. Its airport services only Moscow, a few other Russian cities and a small handful of foreign charter flights. Local business isn't exactly booming.
It does have one thing, however: smart people, lots of them. As Russia feels the effects of Western sanctions, it's hoping to buoy the economy by kickstarting its fledgling tech industry. That includes a government project to create what it calls a Russian Silicon Valley in a suburb outside Moscow. But some 1,900 miles to the east, Tomsk - historically a bustling university town - has the advantage of being home to some of Russia's best programs in science and technology, which regularly churn out first-class graduates. One in five residents here is a student.
Officials are trying to capitalize on that to cement this bookish city as a regional powerhouse for innovation and economic growth.
It's not the worst idea, observers say. If only the region were less remote and better developed.
"And so it turns out that cadres are raised here, and those cadres quietly hit the road," says Elena Fatkulina, a local journalist. Starting with fur traders who first ventured into Siberia centuries ago, Russia has a long history of trying to develop the far-flung regions that make up its vast heartland, usually against tall odds.
Under communism, the Soviets built a network of sprawling, bland cities across Siberia to bolster heavy industry and oil and gas production. Now, officials here in the Tomsk region - about 600 miles north of where the Kazakh, Chinese and Mongolian borders meet - are taking a more modern approach. With a long-term strategy called INO Tomsk 2020, they're hoping to harness the local population's intellectual capital to attract investment and cultivate a robust start-up climate that would contribute to the regional economy.
Andrey Antonov, deputy governor for economics, says the plan - originally approved in 2011 - aims to tap into the "knowledge economy" to boost local industrial and commercial capacity.
"We need to direct our research and development and our educational institutions toward programs of import substitution," he said in an interview. That's especially important now, since the price of oil - Russia's economic lifeblood - is gradually slipping amid a general economic downturn.
At a cost of around $4.5 billion, Tomsk's project is slated to create the economic, social and logistical infrastructure necessary to make that possible. That means everything from developing new campuses and building regional transport links to wrangling support from major state corporations. Fortunately, officials have a strong starting point. Tomsk is already something of an anomaly in resource-rich Siberia: teeming with human capital, it's home to scores of local start-ups and an IT sector that's the region's second largest. With its imperial charm and elegant gingerbread-style houses, it's also not your average dreary urban jungle.
"It's not some city in the mud that sprang up during the Soviet era where you can't do anything but extract oil and then leave quickly," says Fatkulina, chief editor of the Tomsk Review, an online news site.
A key element of the development strategy is a special economic zone - an expansive, purpose-built site that offers office space and tax benefits to entrepreneurs interested in growing their businesses. Launched in 2009, the area is home to 59 resident companies, around two-thirds of which are in the IT sector. According to Konstantin Kaminsky, the zone's acting general director, one in five companies is at least partly foreign-financed, but all companies here must be registered in Tomsk, once a closed city during the Soviet era. Kaminsky prefers to remain realistic about the area's potential.
"We understand that we're not Singapore or Hong Kong, points that are located at the crossroads of trade routes and which naturally see a flow of workforce and investment," he says. But he adds that the zone is ideal for local students and young researchers already involved in blossoming projects and looking for a leg up, especially from keen investors.
"The economy of our scientific-education complex is no less interesting than the extraction of mineral resources," Kaminsky says. Whether they'll actually come is another question.The high quality of the local universities - which include Tomsk State University (TSU) and Tomsk Polytechnic University - enables their graduates to set their sights on Moscow or even abroad. It's not unusual for alumni to end up at Microsoft, Google or Facebook, locals say.
TSU, Siberia's oldest university and the largest of six major institutions here, offers many double-degree and exchange programs with foreign universities. It's also looking to boost its international profile.
While that may be good for the students, it's also why many of them don't return here after their studies, says Diana Kozikova, a project manager at TSU. Her project aims to stem the drain by advising students and would-be entrepreneurs about how to start their own businesses here, partly by inviting foreign experts. It's part of a small network of business incubators here that grooms future cadres for careers in innovation. But it's a difficult task, she says, not least because her project is still in its infancy and traveling is easier than ever.
"At the moment, there are many opportunities beyond Tomsk that students take advantage of freely," Kozikova says. Russia's increasing isolation in the world may also be a motivating factor, at least for those who choose to move abroad. The educated, often liberal-minded classes have invariably been the first to leave during what's shaping up to be one of Russia's worst brain drains since the fall of the Soviet Union. More than 200,000 Russians emigrated in the first eight months of 2014, official statistics show - more than any previous year during Putin's 14-year reign. Politics aside, some local entrepreneurs say Tomsk's relative remoteness contributes to the sluggish growth of business.
"That doesn't mean we don't have internet or that we can't make telephone calls," jokes Roman Malakhov, a 33-year-old software programmer. But he adds that many of his peers have left Tomsk, thanks partly to a lack of local capital and access to markets. Although he's based here, Malakhov started his first company - Zoom, a software start-up - from Moscow. Still, he cautiously commends local officials for having a plan to develop the region. Others agree that attempts to fashion the region into an innovation hub aren't entirely unrealistic.
Fatkulina, the journalist, credits the local authorities with boosting the city's profile in recent years. It's up to them to finish the job and convince people to stay, she adds. At the very least, it's not nearby Omsk, which has the unfortunate reputation among Russians as being a downtrodden backwater. "People have stopped confusing the two now," Fatkulina says with a smirk.

Copyright 2014 GlobalPost - International News.
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