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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Defense 'Conversion 92' Exhibit Illustrates Slow-Going Ways

If swords can be turned into plowshares, why not anti-tank guns into plows?

After decades of producing rifles and guns, the Degtyaryov factory, in Kovrov near Vladimir, is trying to market a hand-steered, self-propelled plow. Just the thing for fledgling private farmers lacking the cash for a tractor.

The Degtyaryov factory is one of 250 defense contractors from Russia and other ex-Soviet republics presenting their attempts at producing civilian goods at the "Conversion 92" trade exhibit in Sokolniki Park this week.

Like many other items shown at the exhibit, however, the plow is only a small variation on an existing product. Degtyaryov has been producing motorcycles for 10 years. Most other large defense complexes have produced refrigerators, ovens and toasters on the side ever since the Khrushchev years.

So far, consumer goods make up less than 30 percent of Degtyaryov's production, the factory's advertizing manager, Alexander Okhrimenko, said.

Most other representatives admitted that their figures were even lower, and said that high subsidies and the risk of entering a competitive market had discouraged most defense contractors from trying to convert.

This year, however, as a budget crunch forces the Russian government to cut purchases of military hardware and arms by 67 percent, defense contractors have little choice but to convert to consumer goods if they want to stay afloat.

Western experts estimate that the defense industrial sector employs up to 10 million workers, or 14 percent of the Russian work force. The slow pace of conversion may put many of these people out of work once subsidies stop flowing in.

Some companies have made a serious attempt at conversion. These firms are trying to sell everything from ultra-lightweight aircraft, commercial rockets and tractors to items as mundane as belt buckles.

Most, however, seem at a loss to find

a new market that would allow them to keep their highly skilled employees and still make a profit.

And most appear to view international markets with little relish. Neither Okhrimenko nor Valery Yampolsky, deputy director of a Yekaterinburg plant producing orthopedic waterbeds, expressed any interest in exporting.

"There's an unlimited domestic market for our beds", Yampolsky said. His factory, a former missile manufacturer, plans to build 100 of the hi-tech beds for hospital use next year, and has already sold its stock up to next May.

At 3. 5 million rubles, his bed is a lot cheaper than one made in France, which Yampolsky said costs $65, 000

(27. 3 million rubles). Yet he insisted that it did not make sense to export the beds when they were needed here.

And then there are those who trot out existing products and simply say they are aimed at civilian use. In the corner of the Sokolniki exhibition hall, the Latvian Dambis enterprise parked a military-green armored truck filled with telephone equipment. The truck used to serve the Soviet Army in linking military bases.

Asked what the civilian purpose of such a truck might be, the representative seemed at a loss for words. For Arctic expeditions or geological surveys, he suggested after a pause for consultation with a colleague.