Piloting Russia with the Parking Brake On: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's persistent grip on power in Russia might lead one to conclude that one of country's main problems is a lack of democracy. At least one veteran reformer, though, thinks the problem is more a lack of leadership.

In a thoughtful op-ed, Vladimir Mau, dean of the Russian Academy of National Economy and a top government advisor during the country's shock-therapy reforms of the early 1990s, examined the pre-revolutionary glory days ushered in by Pyotr Stolypin, the immensely popular tsarist-era reformer, statesman, and prime minister.

“Stolypin was able to set his sights on higher goals and lead the people toward them without catering to the instincts of the crowd or the influential majority” Mau wrote in the Moscow Times. Stolypin, “the longest-serving prime minister in Russian history. . . put down a revolution and initiated deep reforms.” He was not shy about using force, remarking that it was “necessary to distinguish between blood on the hands of a criminal and blood on the hands of a surgeon.” Moreover, noted Mau, “against opposition from all other government agencies, the Finance Ministry under Stolypin established the conditions needed for macroeconomic stability. It strengthened gold reserves and made the Russian currency one of the most stable and attractive in the prewar world.”

Mau identified three lessons from Stolypin’s tenure: first, “a “a leader should be willing to assume full responsibility — especially for unpopular measures.” Second, “any political reformer needs a strong finance minister behind him.” And third, “a reformer cannot be held hostage to party interests or special interest groups. He should pursue long-term strategic goals, even if this entails short-term difficulties.”

Leaders outside Russia, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, might benefit from such advice.

What was Stolypin’s fate? In 1911, “at the height of his reform efforts,” he was “shot dead” – the reward cruelly meted out to so many of Russia’s best and brightest, both then, and, unfortunately, now.

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As Russia’s air and river fleets age, transport tragedies proliferate, but possibly not all are due to decrepit machinery or technical breakdowns. After the crash near Yaroslavl of a Yak-42 jet -- which took the lives of 44 people, including all the players on the roster of the Lokomotiv hockey team -- Russian media are looking into an absurd possibility: Somebody forgot to release the parking brake.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, citing what it called a “trustworthy source” at the Yaroslavl airport, reported that "the plane began taking off from the runway with the parking brake still on,” which meant that, though “the engines were powerful enough to get the aircraft moving, reaching take-off speed would be problematic.”

The paper also presented criticism of the hypothesis. Test-pilot Sergey Knyshov called it “hard to believe.” Rbc.ru quoted another test-pilot, Aleksandr Akimenkov, who was also skeptical: with the brake engaged, “the plane wouldn’t have taken off, or it would have remained in place.”

Will we ever know for sure what happend? Not necessarily. Moskovsky Komsomolets’s source “supposed that . . . ‘the commission [inquiring into the crash] will try not to place all the blame on the crew, for purely ethical reasons, and find that something broke down.’ After all, the pilots themselves died in the catastrophe.”

Whatever its cause, the crash of the Yak-42, according to The Moscow Times, “brought the Russian death toll from aviation accidents this year to 119, the worst showing worldwide,” and has occasioned much grief in Russia. In Lokomotiv’s home town of Yaroslavl, “a city of 606,000, a crowd of 100,000 came to the funeral.”

Russia’s demographic trends are almost as frightening as its transport safety record. The Moscow Times relayed grim tidings from the State Statistics Service: “Preliminary results from a nationwide census last fall put the Russian population at almost 142 million, 3 million less than during the previous census in 2002.” The Service predicts that Russia's population could fall by as many as 8 million by 2025. That is bad enough, but the paper noted that “A 2008 United Nations report said the decrease may be 11 million, with widespread alcoholism, emigration, poverty and poor medical care to blame.”

The matter has long concerned the highest echelons of the Russian government and poses a grave threat to the economy. A 2010 uptick in the birth rate has not reversed the population drop, said Tatyana Golikova, the Minister of Health and Social Development, according to Interfax. In fact, Russia still hasn’t “returned to the birth rates of 1991” – the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

* * *

Russian Muslims awoke on Sunday, the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, to a distressing event close to home. The historic Sobornaya Mosque in central Moscow, “the main center for Muslims of all European Russia” and an “example of Tatar architecture from the early nineteenth century” was torn down on the order of the Russian Council of Muftis, RIA Novosti reported. Overcrowding during a recent celebration damaged the structure and necessitated its demolition, said Rafik Fattakhetdinov, the deputy chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the European Part of Russia. The same news agency also described the Council’s plans to build a new mosque on the same spot, using some of the old building’s bricks.

Reactions among the country’s Islamic community, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the population, have been mixed. “It’s strange that the mosque was torn down on September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks in the USA. One could say that on that day Moscow also suffered a tragedy,” said Albir Krganov, the first deputy director of the Central Directorate of Muslims. Krganov was more critical in remarks he made to The Moscow Times, declaring that the mosque’s destruction “provokes bewilderment” and was done “unexpectedly . . . without consulting the Muslim community.”

Although President Dmitri Medvedev earlier this month called for the preservation "of the historical center of the city, its rich cultural heritage," some Muscovites view Islamic places of worship as undesirable. Hence, “plans to build a mosque in the Tekstilshchiki district in southeastern Moscow were scrapped last fall following public protests — including one on Sept. 11, 2010.”

(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.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.

-0- Sep/16/2011 22:13 GMT