More Trouble on Russia’s Rivers: World View

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By Jeffrey Tayler

A new transport tragedy has struck the heart of Russia's capital. On Sunday just after midnight, a pleasure craft navigating the Moscow River struck a barge and sank, reported Itar-Tass in a brief communiqué.

Disturbing details of the accident soon began to emerge. The “overloaded motorboat” – later identified as the Lastochka, or Swallow – “apparently carrying a group of partyers [sic], rammed into a moored barge . . . sinking on the spot and killing nine people," reported The Moscow Times. "The Moscow River accident is the second of its kind in less than a month after the Bulgaria riverboat sank in the Volga River, killing 122.”

The ill-starred party had been celebrating the thirty-first birthday of Turkish citizen Vaiz Mebzat, according to a report in Komsomolskaya Pravda. Judging by the photos accompanying the article, the young revelers were imbibing alcohol and whooping it up before the calamity.

Investigators “were inclined to blame the motorboat’s owner,” fifty-year-old Gennady Zinger, who had “a reputation for … ignoring navigation rules,” according to The Moscow Times. Indeed, Zinger, who died in the collision, “had been fined three times this year for operating an overloaded boat.”

Penalties don’t appear to have much effect on the safety of Russia's waterways. The Moscow News’ Tom Washington reported that violators typically get off with “either a warning or a 500 ruble ($18) fine.”

The Public Prosecutor's Office, spurred by last month's sinking of the Bulgaria, conducted a general safety review of the country’s nautical fleet, said It found that seven hundred ships built more than thirty years ago ply Russia’s waters, a fact that hardly inspires confidence. Worse, prosecutors told the news site, “shipowners take an irresponsible approach to maintaining the boats and assuring safe navigation.” The article specified: “Ships set sail without full crews or the required documents, overloaded and without the requisite life-saving equipment,” using navigation programs running on counterfeit software in foreign languages.

Not that the airways are necessarily safer. According to RIA Novosti, laser hooligans still threaten the skies and those who fly them. Police in the southern town of Gelendzhik arrested two young men who, on Tuesday night, attempted to blind the pilots of a just-landed plane with a laser pointer. Thankfully, all 115 people aboard reached the terminal safely.

The Gelendzhik incident follows the release in Warsaw, last Friday, of a Polish investigative report on the plane crash near Smolensk last year that killed the Polish president and ninety-five others. “Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots” of the ill-fated aircraft, recounted the Associated Press. However, “the report into the crash proportions most blame on Polish officials and procedures.” State Duma deputy Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the body’s International Affairs Committee, responded defensively: "This report is not a technical but a political one . . . . The results were compiled with a nod to the political situation in order to show that Russians were to blame for at least something."

* * *

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin keeps polishing his image, though it remains unclear to what end.

This week, Putin visited the state-run youth camp “Seliger -- 2011” at Lake Seliger, north of Moscow, his official web site announced []. The ever-buff premier showed up at the stand called “Vladimir Putin and A Healthy Way of Life” to chat with some of the hundred overweight campers in attendance. He then repaired to a mountain-climber’s training wall to observe a climber in action, safety ropes attached. Not surprisingly, Putin himself then scaled the wall – sans protective gear. For doubters, The Moscow Time’s coverage included a photo of the prime-ministerial derring-do.

Observers keep scrutinizing Putin’s actions for hints that he will run for the presidency in elections scheduled for March 2012. Writing in an op-ed for The Moscow Times, Vladimir Frolov calls Putin’s establishment of the All-Russian People’s Front, a nebulous coalition of supporters, “a clear sign that he was laying the political groundwork to justify and ensure his return to the Kremlin in 2012.”

Will Putin run against current President Dmitri Medvedev, who has yet to announce? Frolov is not sanguine about the young, self-professed liberal president, whose second term, should it come to pass, would raise “the specter of a Mikhail Gorbachev-style unraveling of the country with Medvedev’s Kremlin losing control as it pushed for faster political liberalization during his second term despite insufficient public support.” Yet, as Frolov noted:

“. . . some of [Medvedev’s] advisers are now calling upon him to openly challenge Putin and declare his presidential candidacy . . . in September. The strategy is to pre-empt Putin and force him into a position where he has to either endorse Medvedev as his own choice for president or repudiate his protege [sic] with public arguments why Medvedev did not live up to Putin’s expectations and, thus, does not deserve to serve a second term. But Putin would never challenge Medvedev openly because this risks an all-out war of the elites.

If this strategy doesn’t work, Medvedev might be urged to throw a Hail Mary pass and exercise his constitutional right to fire Putin before Medvedev loses this power six months before the presidential vote.”

Frolov counsels Medvedev to ignore such advice. Rather, “he should focus on finding the right political role to continue his modernization agenda in another capacity. This might help him return to the main political stage, perhaps as a contender in the 2018 or 2024 presidential race.”

That would leave the presidency open to one other top official, whose exploits never disappear from the headlines for long. Any guess who that might be?

(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- Aug/04/2011 23:06 GMT