A voluntary departure policy distributed recently by the State Department gives employees the option to return to the United States--on the State Department's dime--before January 1, James Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said at a press briefing today.
As first reported by The New York Times, the decision by the State Department came after officials agreed that Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova could be among countries most affected by the Y2K bug.
The Year 2000 problem, also known as the millennium bug, stems from an old programming shortcut that used only two digits to signify years, such as 76 for 1976. If computer systems are not modified, some may mistake the year 2000 for the year 1900 and may crash or function incorrectly.
Despite earlier reports, Rubin said the State Department does not expect hundreds of government employees to flee Russia. He does expect some "non-essential" employees to take advantage of the new policy, however.
"We're concerned that there may be some localized failures" due to the Y2K problem, "but no dangerous problems are expected," Rubin said.
Although many are concerned that the date change will spur a number of small inconveniences in some areas of society, most specialists believe Russia won't be victim to anything catastrophic as a result of the Y2K bug.
Year 2000-related disruptions are likely to occur in key sectors such as electricity, heating, phone service, transportation, banking, and emergency services, according to a recently revised information sheet provided by the State Department.
Even if such disruptions occur, the State Department says the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has its own backup generators, fuel, food and water stores, and telephone connections.
"We don't anticipate closing any embassies," Rubin said. "We feel the authorized voluntary departure is the best response and is a prudent way to prepare for potential problems. We have created a process. We're not ordering people to depart."
The Times reported that withdrawing employees from Russia could cost as much as $8 million. The estimated cost to the U.S. government is $10,000 per person for a 30-day departure, and $5,000 per person if the leave is limited to 15 days.
Though Rubin didn't give specific details on the cost involved in transporting government employees, he did say the State Department plans to pay a "minimal cost." Yet that the government is willing to spend such a large sum to transport employees reflects the growing anxiety in Washington and among some government employees in Moscow about the pending date change and its effects in Russia.