For at least the third time in two years on Monday, prominent Russian official and the head of the country’s consumer rights watchdog, Gennady Onishchenko, sharply criticized the Department of Defense-funded Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tiblisi, Georgia. RIA Novosti reported:
“According to our assessments, this laboratory constitutes an important offensive link in the US military-biological capability,” Onishchenko was quoted by Russian media as saying, adding that compounds developed at the facility could be secretly employed to destabilize the political and economic situation in Russia.
Onishchenko has made similar comments in the past about the center, as detailed by blogger Joshua Kucera. Onishchenko also has a history of offering conspiratorial theories about Georgia, but Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also hinted at its disapproval of the center, stating in July: “Biological-related activities of the U.S. Department of Defense close to the Russian borders also cause our serious concern.”
These accusations have forced United States officials to emphasize that the center is not conducting any work related to biological weapons. In July, U.S. ambassador to Georgia remarked, “There still seems to be misperception that this laboratory is a military facility or is engaged in biological weapons research which is absurd.”
According to the center’s website, the Georgian and U.S. goal for the center “is to deal with infectious disease threats at their source, utilizing modern technological developments gleaned from the rapidly expanding knowledge base in public and animal health.” Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili noted in March 2012 that American military researchers will conduct research at the laboratory, though the FAQ section of the center’s site tries to clarify that the presence of U.S. military personnel is not atypical in these sites. The FAQ also underscores that the center will not deal with biological-weapons related research, only focusing on the prevention of the spread of pandemic diseases.
Other than the presence of U.S. military scientists, the center’s obvious link to the U.S. military is that it was built by the Defense Department, specifically the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). DTRA manages the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which aims to “prevent the proliferation of WMD and related materials, technologies and expertise from former Soviet Union states.” Funding to Georgia’s research center and similar activities in the Eurasia region comes through CTR’s biological counter-proliferation projects. According to data from the Security Assistance Monitor, the U.S. spent over USD 1 billion on biological counter-proliferation projects in Eurasia region between 2003 and 2011. Unfortunately, only the 2008 CTR report provides a breakdown of how much funding each country in Eurasia received for biological counter proliferation projects, and in that year Georgia led all recipients with USD 67 million. According to an article in civil.ge, the U.S. has invested USD 150 million in the center as of this summer.
DTRA has invested in similar centers throughout Eurasia, including a USD 100 million lab in Kazakhstan that is set to open in 2015. Unless Onishchenko criticizes each of the centers in the region, it is much more likely that his comments stem from displeasure over the close western-Georgian relationship rather than the lab itself. However, as noted by a profile of the center by the Georgian Democracy and Freedom Watch blog, there have been some local suspicions and inconsistencies surrounding the center. For instance, DTRA apparently stated in 2009 that only Georgian scientists would staff the center, which is clearly not the case. After interviewing Biological Arms Control expert Gunnar Jeremias, the profile ultimately wrote, “As far as Jeremias is able to tell from available information, there is nothing problematic with the lab, but transparency is essential for the public to have trust in what is going on.”