By Jeffrey Tayler
Fifty years after the Soviet Union put the first man into orbit, Russia's space program is facing new troubles. Last Wednesday, the routine launch of a Progress M-12M cargo ship headed for the International Space Station went terribly wrong.
“In the 325th second of its flight . . . a disruption occurred in the engine, which led to its emergency shutdown,” reported RIA Novosti. Happily, there were no humans aboard. The debris presumably rained down in the remote Altai republic and, seven days later, has yet to be found.
Just what exactly went wrong with the Progress M-12M concerns more than just Russia, “because Soyuz rockets are now the sole means for crew members to reach — and leave — the International Space Station,” the Moscow Times pointed out. The rocket failure was Russia's second in a week and the fourth since December, the newspaper reported. "Analysts . . . acknowledged that the system is still recovering from a 15-year slump after the Soviet collapse and lacks a cohesive revamp plan.”
Other transport-related news has been disquieting as well. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda covered the bizarre irruption of a swarm of bees into the business-class section of a Moscow-bound Boeing 757, just as the jet was about to take off from Blagoveshchensk. The "disoriented insects behaved improperly. Several dozens of them buzzed around chaotically. . . a few bees flew into the cockpit.” Passengers screamed, but stewardesses deployed towels to shoo the intruding arthropods “into the business-class closet. They shut the door and sealed it with tape.” The plane then flew to Moscow, where “the bees were subjected to poison.” Nevertheless, five of them “made it all the way to Spain, the flight’s destination.”
How did the bees make it aboard? A Blagoveshchensk airport official reportedly carried them in two boxes through security (without being checked) and loaded them on the plane himself. He and others involved have been fined by the general prosecutor for transport. The bees’ owner remains unidentified.
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A more widespread and insidious problem than bees on a plane is corruption in Russia’s law-enforcement agencies. So it came as a great surprise when RIA Novosti reported a puzzlingly positive evaluation made by Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev of his efforts to clean up the force. On Wednesday, Nurgaliyev announced that, with the police having recently undergone anti-corruption reforms, “bribe-taking, abuse of official authority…and all those negative things are behind me, and in the past.” He nevertheless warned newly reformed officers to stay in line: “If you’ve made a mistake, kindly . . . admit your mistake to the citizens. They will interpret this humanely.” The controversy that followed his words prompted Nurgaliyev to redefine “the concept of victory over corruption,” reported the newspaper Vedomosti. As it turned out, “he had in mind the situation in certain regions, not the state of affairs in the country as a whole.”
Maybe Nurgaliyev was on to something. The day after he made his initial remarks, RIA Novosti recounted that "two police officers have been arrested in Moscow after attempting to steal a bag containing the proceeds of an apartment sale from a passerby, police said on Friday.” Progress of a sort.
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Officials can’t make peace with politically motivated street art parodying the diarchy of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (and other top politicians). “Siberian investigators are seeking jail terms over a prank in which a billboard for a clinic treating sexually transmitted diseases was doctored to include less-than-flattering portraits of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin," The Moscow Times reported. "The original billboard for the Barnaul clinic depicted gonorrhea, candida and ureaplasma as ugly monsters under the slogan: ‘Do you need such companions?’ The pranksters added a row of personified disease photos, including a ghastly white President Medvedev” and “a light green Prime Minister Putin … according to photos posted on the local anarchist web site Anarhobarnaul.org.”
The culprits, according to local investigators, were three anarchists belonging to "the radical Antifa organization." The authorities are not rushing to any conclusions: The billboards appeared in February, but the investigation is still underway. “'All three may end up in prison for up to seven years if charged and convicted of hooliganism,’ the authorities said.” Neither Putin nor Medvedev has chosen to comment.
Putin keeps finding new ways to spruce up his macho image. Komsomolskaya Pradva ran a photo-rich reportage on the Novorossiysk motorcycle show at which the prime minister, tanned and decked out in black, showed up saddling a Harley. From the podium he addressed the surprised crowd: “During the war it turned out that it was easiest to evacuate children from Novorossiysk to Sochi by motorcycle. Thanks for not just riding motorcycles, but for conducting patriotic military work.”
And what of Putin's, and Medvedev’s, and Russia’s, future? Vladimir Frolov penned an insightful op-ed for The Moscow Times addressing what he called “the most anticipated political event in Russia.” Does he mean presidential elections scheduled for next spring? No, “the decision that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev will make between themselves about which tandem member might run” for the high office (it being a given that whoever of the two runs will win).
Frolov floated the notion that Medvedev never intended to stay on in the Kremlin, which “would explain his reluctance during his four years in office to build his own political base, including a political party to nominate him for president” or even “outline his distinct narrative for Russia’s future.” But it would discredit the presidency if Medvedev were exposed as nothing more than Putin’s stand-in. Hence, Frolov concluded, the “only option that would retain political plausibility and human decency would be a complete rotation of the tandem — that is, Putin becomes president and appoints Medvedev as prime minister.”
How will Russians react to such bait-and-switch? It may “provoke sneers. But . . . having Medvedev run against Putin, lose the election and turn into a leader of the opposition . . . would be suicidal for Medvedev, turning him into another Mikhail Kasyanov,” the former prime minister and current opposition figure. Frolov counseled Putin to “keep Medvedev as a partner in the tandemocracy and retain him as a reformist prime minister.”
The overarching surmise here is that Russian voters – and the rivalry-ridden, clan-based political elite -- will settle for whatever the two top officials decide. Therein lies the mystery, and the potential for trouble.
(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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