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Controversy overshadows nuclear peace prize

Mikhail Gorbachev handed out the awards

(Keystone)

The awarding of a peace prize to Russian president Vladimir Putin has provoked controversy in the Swiss town of Zug.

Putin was among seven people to be honoured on Saturday by a Zug-based company which specialises in nuclear disarmament programmes.

Although the award was given specifically for Putin's efforts in the field of nuclear disarmament, critics immediately pointed to the Russian president's activities in the breakaway Republic of Chechnya.

Zug's cantonal government formally distanced itself from the prize ceremony, with several local politicians pulling out of the event.

"I have already spoken out publicly against Putin's war on Chechnya," cantonal president Hanspeter Uster reminded the Neue Zuger Zeitung, telling the newspaper that he would never have accepted the invitation if he had known that Putin was being honoured.

Putin absent

Putin himself was also absent from Saturday's ceremony, having asked the Russian ambassador to Switzerland to pick up the prize on his behalf. There was however strong support for Putin from one of his predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev, who is an honorary patron of the Demiurgus peace prize, looked bemused when asked to give his thoughts on the reactions of local politicians. Rather than launching a new career in Swiss politics, though, the former head of state chose to concentrate on Putin's efforts in reviving the international disarmament process.

"I think this prize is being awarded specifically for president Putin's achievements in this field," Gorbachev said shortly before the ceremony. "When you look back at how frozen the process became in the mid-1990s under president Yeltsin, you see that it really has been given a second wind by president Putin.

"I was not myself a member of the prize jury," Gorbachev added, "but I am told that their decision was unanimous."

Hosts criticised

The night's celebrations were further overshadowed by criticisms levelled at one of the ceremony's hosts, with environmentalists describing Nuclear Disarmament Forum plc as a front organisation for the nuclear power industry.

The privately-owned firm is at the forefront of efforts to convert radioactive elements from dismantled nuclear weapons into energy sources for nuclear power plants.

The most controversial aspect of the programme involves the international movement of weapons-grade plutonium, since the converted material cannot be used in Russian plants.

NDF's chief executive officer Andrey Bykov insisted on Saturday that the company's "peace project" and prize ceremonies were part of "my attempt to help destroy these bombs in the best way I can.

"Previous approaches to disarmament simply involved taking the weapons apart and leaving the plutonium intact, which is an absurd form of disarmament. We genuinely feel that there is a danger of these stockpiles ending up in terrorist hands - and we are doing everything we can to stop that."

"Camouflage"

"This whole event is just camouflage," Greenpeace Switzerland spokeswoman Eva Geel countered. "This company wants to transfer dangerous plutonium across Europe in the pretence of fighting international terrorism. But moving the plutonium around only increases the likelihood of it falling into the wrong hands.

"Western countries, including Switzerland, don't object because the next stage of the plan is for the used-up plutonium to be sent back to Russia for long-term storage or for using in the type of fast-breeder reactors which are no longer permitted in the West."

As well as advocating speedy nuclear disarmament, NDF's company literature urges improved dialogue between conflicting religions or societies.

However, Bykov seemed in no mood for dialogue with the dissenting politicians who chose to stay away from Saturday's ceremony.

"I have no comment to make as far as the Zug parliamentarians are concerned," Bykov told swissinfo. "There are local problems, national problems and global problems and my company is only concerned with the latter.

"I certainly won't be looking to speak with them. If they don't understand the situation, they should find some scientists to explain it to them. If they think Zug will be exempt from a nuclear attack on Europe, it's their tragedy."

Hopefully, it will never come to that. But if Saturday night's "celebration of peace" is anything to go by, the disarmament movement still has some battles ahead.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zug

In brief

Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was one of seven people to be awarded with a peace prize by a Zug-based company which specialises in nuclear disarmament programmes.
The awards have sparked controversy, with critics pointing to Putin's activities in the breakaway Republic of Chechnya.
Zug's cantonal government distanced itself from the awards ceremony, with several local politicians pulling out of the event.

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