Computer Imports Sought by Soviets

By David E. Sanger
The New York Times

February 8, 1985

The Soviet Union is negotiating to buy large numbers of Western-made personal computers, including Apple and I.B.M. models, according to industry sources.

The computers are apparently for use in scientific institutes and schools.

The move marks the first time the Russians have sought personal computers from Western nations and Japan in the open market. It is possible because of recently liberalized high-technology trade rules that went into effect five weeks ago.

According to Western experts, the action also comes at a time when Soviet scientists have complained about their country's faltering efforts to build its own microcomputers. As a result, Western-made personal computers have been smuggled into the Soviet Union for some time, but at great expense, preventing the purchase of large quantities.

Hard Currency Seems Ready

''It is clear the Soviets have assigned some hard currency to buy the personal computers - the question is how many,'' said an official of the International Business Machines Corporation in Washington. He added that the Soviet Ministry of Trade had not yet placed an order with his company and that it could be months before any deal was closed.

Executives at other computer companies say the Russians are talking about buying several thousand machines, possibly tens of thousands. Reliable figures are hard to come by, experts say, because Soviet ordering of computers has quickly spread across Britain, France, West Germany and Japan, involving a host of computer dealers and import-export concerns as well as manufacturers.

''It is a great opportunity for us, in a marketplace that has gone begging up to now because of the rules that were in place,'' said Albert A. Eisenstat, a vice president of Apple Inc. He said the Cupertino, Calif., company had had ''indirect contacts'' with the Russians in recent weeks.

Sinclair Research Ltd., a British microcomputer maker, displayed its wares at a computer fair in Moscow last month, the Soviet Union's first, and said yesterday that it was negotiating to sell computers to the Russians for use in secondary schools.

Executives of most computer companies are unwilling to discuss their new relations with the Russians in detail. Part of their hesitancy appears to stem from the fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union have made use of microcomputers in simulating and controlling missile launchings, a fact that the Defense Department used last year to argue against relaxing trade controls.

''We have no illusions,'' an executive of a major computer manufacturer said this week. ''Some of these are headed for the military.''

But the computers are so widely available from a variety of sources, another executive said, that ''it would be a waste of everyone's time to try to stop them.''

The European members of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, or Cocom, used a similar argument last year, saying the export-control group should concentrate on preventing the leakage of truly vital technologies. Cocom, which includes Japan and all NATO countries except Spain and Iceland, coordinates export controls on goods going to the Communist nations.

Until new Commerce Department regulations, based on the Cocom agreement, went into effect Jan. 1, it was virtually impossible to legally export an up-to-date personal computer from the United States to a Communist nation. But the new rules make it far easier for the Eastern bloc to obtain basic personal computer models, including the I.B.M. Personal Computer and PCjr home computer models and the popular Apple II line.

The complex, 24-page set of new rules, which have caused widespread confusion in the industry, essentially sets up three levels of export controls on personal computers.

At the first level, the least sophisticated machines - largely out-of-date computers no longer sold by American manufacturers - require no export licenses.

At the second level, most medium- powered 8- and 16-bit machines, such as the basic Apple and I.B.M. models, require Commerce Department and Defense Department approval before they can be shipped to a Communist nation. But officials say those machines are ''presumed to be exportable,'' and a shipment can be stopped only if it seems suspicious, or if the number of machines requested exceeds the allowable limit under a single export license.

''The rules have been agreed upon, and if there is a legitimate end use and end user, the license will be approved,'' Walter Olson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for export administration, said in a telephone interview.

At the third level, stricter controls cover more sophisticated personal computers, such as I.B.M.'s PC-AT and Apple's Macintosh machine. Shipments of those computers must be approved by Federal officials and the Paris-based Cocom.

A vigorous debate is still under way in Washington over the controls that should be imposed on computer programs, or software. But industry experts note that software is easy to smuggle out of the country. It can be stored on a tiny floppy disk or sent over a telephone line in minutes.

Copyright 1985 The New York Times Company