“According to our estimates, this laboratory is an important part of the U.S. biological weapons program,” Interfax quoted Gennady Onishchenko, head of the federal government’s consumer rights watchdog, as saying on Monday.
“The purpose of this laboratory is to study viruses in Russia and the South Caucasus, and to develop biological agents that could be used to destabilize Russia’s economic and political situation,” he said. “This is about the threat of clandestine operations.”
According to Moscow Times, Onishchenko earlier blamed the laboratory for an outbreak of African swine flu among Russian cattle. U.S. and Georgian officials have denied the charges.
The laboratory, named for former Republican Senator Richard Lugar, became operational in 2011. The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command has played a key role but the center is administered by the Georgian government. U.S. funding has amounted to some $150 million.
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi describes the Lugar Center for Public Health Research as a “state-of-the-art facility, designed to promote public and animal health through infectious disease detection, epidemiological surveillance and research for the benefit of Georgia, the Caucasus and the global community.”
It is part of an international network of surveillance laboratories – with others in Thailand, Kenya and elsewhere – designed to protect the world against high-mortality pandemic diseases, it says.
But the Kremlin, which has long been suspicious of U.S. ambitions in Georgia and other countries on its periphery, sees it otherwise.
Last July, the foreign ministry said Russia was “seriously concerned with biological activities of the U.S. Department of Defense near Russian borders.”
The comment, viewed as referring to the Georgia laboratory, was contained in a ministry response to a U.S. report examining countries’ compliance with arms control and non-proliferation commitments.
While the U.S. was critical of Russian compliance, the ministry said, “there is not documentary confirmation that all facilities which are under jurisdiction or control of the United States and which were earlier involved in the military biological programs, are destroyed or reoriented for peaceful purposes,” in line with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).
Onishchenko’s criticism was even more direct, saying the lab near Tbilisi amounts to a clear violation of America’s “international obligations” under the BTWC – the 1972 treaty that prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.
He also warned that Georgian goods’ access to Russian markets would be directly impacted by the presence of the lab, which he described as a “military base.”
U.S. Embassy comment was not immediately available but the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, has addressed allegations about the Lugar Center before.
“There still seems to be misperception that this laboratory is a military facility or is engaged in biological weapons research which is absurd,” he said in July. “The laboratory is now managed by the Georgian government. The Georgian government and the U.S. have made it clear that it’s open to participation by scientists from around the region; it’s an open, transparent facility.”
During an open event at the Lugar Center last month, Norland again spoke about the issue.
“This facility is designed to promote international collaboration on how to deal with global threats to human and animal health,” he said. “It’s that simple. That’s the beginning and that’s the end of this project.”
Norland added that scientists from across the region, including Russia, were welcome to work at the facility.
Russia’s relationship with the former Soviet state has long been chilly. During his previous stint at the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of backing the 2003 “Rose revolution” that brought the pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili to power.
Saakashvili’s desire to take Georgia into NATO angered Russia, and when he tried to rein in two pro-Moscow separatist regions in 2008, Russia sent in troops to prop up South Ossetia and Abkhazia, later declaring them to be “independent” states.
The brief Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 cost Georgia one-fifth of its territory and set back the NATO aspirations, as Moscow pressured European countries that were dependent on Russian oil and natural gas to withdraw their support for Georgian accession.
Saakashvili’s second and last presidential term ends in a few weeks’ time, but he remains a thorn in Putin’s side.
In his final speech at the U.N. General Assembly, in New York last month, Saakashvili lashed out at the Russian leader.
“It makes me sick when KGB agent Vladimir Putin lectures the world about freedom values and democracy,” he said. “This is least of the things he can do to the world being dictatorial leader of one of the last empires left.”
When Putin leaves the Kremlin, Saakashvili said, “Russian citizens will remember him as a ghost from the old times, the times of the empire – the times of corruption and oppression.”
Russian delegates walked out during the speech.