Tragedy, Beauty and a Dearth of Presidential Candidates in Russia: World View

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By Jeffrey Tayler

All too often, real-life tragedies interrupt the ceaseless stream of Kremlin intrigues, accounts of corruption, and official pronouncements dominating the headlines in Russia.

So it was when, just before midnight on 20 June, a RusAir Tu-134 crash-landed on a highway near the airport of Petrozavodsk, a city in northwestern Russia, killing forty-five people. Human error may well be to blame. Sergei Shmatkov, an air-traffic controller at the nearby airport, told "I asked [the pilot] several times to circle again. There was poor visibility - only 2100 meters -- because of the thick fog, darkness, difficult weather. But he said he would land the plane at his own risk."

Yet a hero has emerged from the disaster, as “A” pseudonymously notes in his blog Smiling Land, on Zhivoy Zhurnal (LiveJournal): “A . . . nameless eyewitness to the crash tells of how he saved people from the burning airplane. He saved one person, then two more . . . and then he couldn’t save anyone else, because the airplane began exploding!” “A” provides a stirring link to an interview with the brave man (beginning at :48), who, soaked in pre-dawn rain, came close to tears (at 1:16) as he expressed regret at not being able to save more lives.

“It seems,” “A” concludes, reprising the title of a classic Russian novel of youthful daring, “that guys like this are the Heroes of Our Time, who throw themselves not in front of the camera, but into the struggle to help others. And they do this not for medals, but because they can do nothing else.”

When it comes to air travel around the former Soviet Union, Russians and foreigners alike frequently voice misgivings, or even outright fear, about the conditions of the aircraft and the antediluvian aspect of outback airports. They are right to do so. As the Associated Press put it:

In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records, according to official statistics. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of aircraft used, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.

Recriminations are already hitting the press about the Petrozavodsk crash. Aleksey Volodikhin of Komsomolskaya Pravda interviewed Valery Mityagin, the husband of Yelena Mityagina, who died in the disaster: “Yelena was supposed to fly on a small Canadian plane, a Bombardier. . . . When, just before takeoff,” she was informed that she would be flying on a Tu-134. “Why on earth would they switch a small reliable imported plane for that coffin-crate?”

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, which consists mostly of grim and gray fellow siloviki (“strongmen,” highers-up in the security ministries), has gained a colorful new member. Last week, AFP broke the news that the government had augmented Putin’s pool of personal photographers with Yana Lapikova, a 25-year-old former Miss Moscow finalist.

The choice generated a flurry of activity among Internet denizens, who noted her relative lack of experience and posted photos from her previous career. RIA Novosti quoted Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, explaining why photographers with thicker resumes were hard to find in talent-rich, unemployment-riddled Russia: “The job of a personal photographer is like hard prison labor, which isn’t at all as well remunerated as it is in the international photo agencies.”

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Personnel decisions aside, the big question remains whether Putin plans to run in next year’s presidential elections. While in Paris inking aviation-related deals, he once again dodged the question, according to Itar-Tass. Responding to a query from a French journalist, he pronounced that, “Not a specific person, but the Russian people themselves should decide who represents Russia in parliament.” It then appeared he was about to issue a clarification, but instead said: “Whoever the president may be, whoever works in the State Duma, whoever heads the Russian government, in any case, those people . . . will do their best to develop Russian-French relations.”

Yet there are a few (equivocal) indications that both Putin and current President Dmitri Medvedev will run for the top job. interpreted Medvedev’s umpteenth call (this one delivered at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum held last week) for dramatic economic reforms as “something like a program for his next presidency.” “Something like,” but not quite. The Moscow Times noted that Medevedev “denounced ‘state capitalism’ — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s model for controlling key sectors of the economy — and announced that the state would shrink its economic footprint by expanding its privatization plans," which could foreshadow an upcoming contest for the Kremlin keys. Or it might not. “Medvedev is asking investors to take a huge leap of faith in embracing his promises for stability but not backing them up with the transparency of disclosing whether he will be around to fulfill them.” Medvedev deepened the mystery by declaring, when asked point-blank if he would run, “Every story should have its own intrigue, otherwise life would be boring, so let’s enjoy it a little longer.”

And what of Putin? Igor Nikolayev of pointed out that “as far as epochal promises [about boosting the standard of living] are concerned, Vladimir Putin has already exceeded Nikita Khrushchev,” the Soviet premier noted for “harebrained schemes” and wildly unrealistic declarations that the Soviet Union would inevitably pass and surpass, even bury, the United States economically. Putin, noted Nikolayev, has already pledged that “within ten years [Russia] will number among the five largest economies in the world, and its per capita gross national product should practically double, to $35,000.” (According to one reliable estimate, Russia’s current per capita GDP is actually $15,900.) Putin is no Khrushchev, but his talking up a ten-year plan certainly invites the supposition that he will hang around the Kremlin long enough to see it through.

When will the intrigue end? The Moscow Times: “. . . [O]nly nine months remain before the vote, and no serious candidate has cast his hat into the ring. In the last election in 2008, investors only found out that Medvedev would be the next president three months before Election Day. The Kremlin owes investors — and, more important, voters — much more this time around.”

Talk of who owes what to whom in Russia is cheap. The country’s leaders operate according to their own priorities, and maneuver for position and advantage far from the public’s eye. Elections are scheduled for March 2012. Given the turmoil that announcing a candidacy will provoke in Russia’s vast, opaque bureaucracy, expect to learn who will run for president just in time for Christmas.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including Murderers in Mausoleums -- Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Jun/23/2011 19:34 GMT