Russia’s Titanic, Medvedev's Muddle and Putin's New Stagnation

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Is Russia a sinking ship? On Sunday afternoon, the aging, decrepit cruise liner Bulgaria went down in rough waters during a storm on the Volga River, some five hundred miles east of Moscow. The tragedy plunged Russia into grief and mourning. The Moscow Times provided grim updates, first reporting forty-one deaths  then 129. Alex Bratersky of the same paper described heart-wrenching details of the catastrophe, in which at least 30 children perished:

“The ‘Volga Titanic’ sank in three minutes with the music still playing . . . . An investigation into Russia's worst maritime disaster in 25 years was in full swing Monday, but the actual cause appeared to have been a lack of air conditioning — which prompted the crew to open portholes that were then flooded by an incoming wave.”

Overloading, according to RIA Novosti may have also figured in the event: the President of the Republic of Tatarstan (where the incident occurred), said that the Bulgaria was “carrying 196 people instead of the maximum 120 allowed by safety rules.” Worse, RIA Novosti pointed out, “The Bulgaria carried all the necessary life-saving equipment . . . life-rafts for 120 people, two lifeboats for 36 people, as well as 165 life-vests for adults and 12 for children.” Yet most of the ill-fated passengers had insufficient time to use them. quoted Nikolay Chernov, a survivor, who recounted that two ships had passed by, ignoring him and others as they signaled for help from a life raft. “We waved to them but they didn’t stop.” also reported that “at that time the [cruise liner] Meteor was nearby, and people aboard it began taking pictures of the drowning people on their mobile phones.”

President Dmitry Medvedev declared July 12 a national day of mourning, and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation announced that it has opened a criminal investigation into the matter, targeting Svetlana Inyakina, the director of ArgoRechTur, which operated the doomed liner, and Yakov Ivashov, senior expert at the Kamsk branch of the Russian River Fleet. “At present Inyakina and Ivashov have been detained” and face ten years in prison.

National tragedy hasn't completely eclipsed Russia's preoccupation with the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for March 2012. Neither of the two likeliest contenders, Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has declared his candidacy. Yet as Yulia Taratuta and Irina Reznik of Vedomosti reported, that may be about to change.

On Monday the president met with leaders and owners of twenty-seven big companies at a Kremlin event. '"No one expected to talk about politics,' said a businessman who attended, 'but at the meeting’s end, the president suddenly began talking about the presidential elections. He began by saying that the situation in the country is complicated, and how it develops will depend on two people, himself and Vladimir Putin, who, however, have differing scenarios for its development. . . . Medvedev compared himself with Putin . . . and said that in recent years the country had been developing along lines laid down by Putin, but Medvedev has declared a new program [at the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum] and now businessmen must decide which course the country will take.'"

Another participant, according to the article, quoted Medvedev as saying, “You have to decide whether you support my program or whether you’ll leave things as they are." Medvedev said it was time for business to "decide whom it wants to see as the next president, Medvedev or Putin.”

Does that mean the mystery is over? Is Medvedev acknowledging that he's running for president? Not necessarily, said Taratuta and Reznik. One participant said "it sounded as though the president was saying, ‘I want to, but I still don’t know if I will. I don’t have a firm position.’ "

Medvedev's web site,, provides an account of the meeting that mentions none of this.

Putin, meanwhile, continues to enjoy strong support from many, including Medvedev’s own deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov, and, it seems, God himself. In an interview on Chechen television, Surkov made a surprise announcement: “Honestly, I consider Putin the person sent to Russia by fate and the Lord in a difficult time.”

Others consider Putin (and Russian politics) somewhat less sacred. Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School and a Vedomosti columnist, published a scathing op-ed in The Moscow Times in which he alleged that since leaving the top office, Putin has weakened the presidency:

“It is clear that the current president does not hold the power that is provided to him by the Constitution. President Dmitry Medvedev has on multiple occasions floated ideas that he could have enacted by simply signing an order; the Constitution gives him this power. At the same time, some of Medvedev's powers that are granted to him by the Constitution have been co-opted by Putin — for example, in areas concerning foreign policy. Other presidential powers have not been transferred to Putin but have simply vanished into thin air.”

Also writing for The Moscow Times, Kirill Rodionov, a research associate at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy in Moscow, decried the “stagnation” of the Putin era, warning that, amid all the confusion about upcoming presidential polls, “one thing is clear: Putin wants to retain power after 2012.”

He adds:

“Putin will remain national leader through 2018, and perhaps longer. This evokes a direct analogy to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled for 18 years. Brezhnev, most often remembered for his era of stagnation, blocked reforms needed to adapt the socialist system to changing global realities.”

If only Putin, said Rodionov, “had left the political stage in time, he would have surely been remembered fondly by most Russians for ushering in a decade of growth and prosperity that followed the government default of 1998.”

Yet it's worth noting that many Russians recall the Brezhnev era fondly, viewing its "stagnation" as a synonym for "stability." Could a “Russian Spring" change such perceptions and loosen Putin's grip on power? Don’t bet on it.



-0- Jul/14/2011 19:55 GMT