In an attempt to keep its best seafarers from running to other flags, Russia is introducing rules to make it harder for its seamen to work overseas.

The Russian Marine Transport Department this year adopted rules that require the confiscation of seaman's licenses from seafarers not working on Russian ships. The rules also place restrictions on issuing new licenses, commonly called seaman's books, to sailors applying to work on non-Russian vessels.Sergey Lavrukhin, director of Sovbunker, a Moscow manning agent, said seaman's passports are only being issued to a restricted number of manning agencies on special terms.

He said the new rules are a "serious threat" and could reverse the growth of Russion crews working on foreign ships.

"The wave may have peaked and it could be on the ebb," he said.

Mr. Lavrukhin said the basic aim of the restrictions is to protect Russian shipping companies that have seen an exodus of trained staff in search of high pay and better conditions.

The basic wage for a Russian seaman within Russia is about $500 a month, as much as four times less than what a crewmember earns on a foreign-flag ship, Mr. Lavrukhin said.

According to the Russian Union of Seafarers, about 5,000 seamen now sail under foreign flags.

This figure differs considerably from Western estimates. Capt. Peter Cooney, managing director of ship management company Acomarit (UK) Ltd., said recently that Russian seafarers probably number around 100,000, of which 10 percent are serving in the international fleet.

Sergey Teryokhin, financial director of Novoship, Russia's biggest shipping company, said the government was within its powers to restrict Russian seamen from serving overseas. He said Russian seamen received their training for free at government-funded academies, and the government had a right to expect that they would work for Russia.

But Vladimir Shirochenkov, chairman of the Russian Seamen's Union, said the union supports the right of Russian seamen to work on foreign-flag ships, adding that the restrictions, which were imposed by the Department of Marine Transport, are illegal.

According to Mr. Shirochenkov, seafarers' wages within Russia have risen slightly over the past year or two, partly because Russia's trade union movement has become more organized and independent.

But Mr. Shirochenkov said domestic salaries are still below world levels, and his union is taking this into account in its negotiations with foreign shipowners. He said crews who are signed on foreign ships through manning agents now claim basic wages of more than $1,000 a month.

The union also is trying to win higher salaries for seamen working for Russian shipping companies that are transferring their ships to flags of convenience for tax and legal reasons. Mr. Shirochenkov said this is a growing trend and could account for as much as 80 percent of all Russian sailors now working under foreign flags.

Mr. Shirochenkov said the government's concerns about losing qualified sailors are unfounded, especially because Russia is attracting many seamen

from other former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine, where salaries are even lower than in Russia.

A longer-term concern for crewing in Russia, executives suggested, is that the national financial crisis has started to erode Russia's strong system of training for seamen and officers. Government funding has been cut dramatically, forcing unions and shipowners to fill the breach.