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Thursday, July 29, 2004

MOSCOW -- The Kalashnikov, like vodka, seems quintessentially Russian. But, as with vodka, plenty of other countries make versions of the assault rifle, and Russia's arms export agency isn't flattered.

It doesn't help that the foreign versions come cheaper.

The Kalashnikov isn't the most sophisticated or accurate gun, but its simplicity and reliability have made it the world's most popular automatic weapon: An estimated 100 million have been produced over the last half-century.

Even the United States thinks well of it, as evidenced by Washington's decision to purchase tens of thousands for use in Iraq. That's what rankles with Rosoboronexport, the Russian export agency -- the guns bought by the United States were made in Bulgaria.

"By rights, these products should be bought at the factories where they were first developed," a Rosoboronexport spokesman complained this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We would like the United States to buy from the company that first made it. It's not a pleasant situation."

Russia, trying to regain its strength in the worldwide arms market, reported a 20-percent jump in arms sales last year to $5.4 billion. But these days, the Izhmash factory, birthplace of the Kalashnikov, is producing only a few thousand AK-model guns a year. AK stands for "Avtomat Kalashnikov" -- automatic Kalashnikov.

Rosoboronexport says it isn't planning any immediate measures to pressure buyers into purchasing Russian-made Kalashnikovs. It's unclear if any inducement could buck the market, since foreign versions are cheaper and also just as good.

Bulgarian weapons-maker Arsenal, which won a contract last year from the United States to supply light weapons to the new Iraqi army, makes a version of the Kalashnikov configured to NATO-standard 5.56-millimeter ammunition, reportedly for about $100 apiece. Russian-made AKs sell for $500-$1,000, according to Maxim Pyadushkin, a small-arms expert and editor-in-chief of the defense magazine, Russian/CIS Observer.

The Russians' predicament is made up of various ideological and strategic strands.

The Kalashnikov's qualities -- especially its ability to keep firing in sandy conditions that jammed more sophisticated weapons such as the US-made M-16 -- made it popular among Third World revolutionary insurgents whom the Soviet Union supported. So the Soviets shared their gun-making know-how with their friends.

"It was a political instrument," said Pyadushkin.

Countries' KalashnikovsToday, more than 15 countries manufacture the weapon, including Poland, Hungary, North Korea, Cuba, India and Egypt. Production may be prolific, but its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, 84, sees only "kopecks" in royalty payments, according to Rosoboronexport.

"It was the 1940s -- there was no possibility of registering a patent. Now more than 50 years have passed and by law his original invention can't be patented," the agency spokesman said. "Deep in his soul he perhaps feels it is unfair."

The Kalashnikov's genius, says Pyadushkin, is its simplicity. Pyadushkin recalls how, as a Soviet schoolboy of 15, he and his classmates had to learn to dismantle the weapon in just 45 seconds. A professional soldier had to do the same in 15 seconds, using one hand.

U.S. troops in Iraq who picked up the Cold War-era weapon on raids were quick to appreciate its rugged reliability. U.S. troops value them not only because they jam less than the M-16 and M-4 in Iraq's dusty conditions, but because it is claimed they can kill with fewer shots in close combat situations.

But should Kalashnikov or Rosoboronexport would have their work cut out to prove that foreign factories should pay them royalties.

"In other countries it is produced in a modified form," Pyadushkin said. "It's virtually impossible to show that Kalashnikov's rights have been violated."

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