Friday, April 06, 2012

Russia: Tolerating disaster

© RIA Novosti. Iliya Pitalev

by Dan Peleschuk,

A string of public tragedies this week seems to have reinforced Russia’s unfortunate reputation of being disaster-prone. With no end in sight to the worrying consistency of public disasters, the authorities seem resigned to Russia’s perpetual bad luck.

In just two days, nearly 50 people were killed in a rapid-fire spate of tragedies that highlight Russia’s dire public safety situation.

First, an airliner traveling from the Siberian city of Tyumen to Surgut on April 2 crashed shortly after taking off, killing 31 people instantly and landing another 12 in critical condition at nearby hospitals. Russian media have reported that investigators are pointing to the ground crew’s failure to properly de-ice the plane before departure – another sign of the human error factor present in so many other air tragedies.

The disaster arrives just six months after a YAK-42 crash killed the entire Yaroslavl-based Lokomotiv hockey team in an accident that investigators also chalked up to human error. President Dmitry Medvedev pledged after that tragedy to overhaul Russian air safety standards – Russia was ranked in 2011 as having the world’s worst air safety record – and introduce new foreign aircraft into Russian fleets. Yet the French-made ATR 72 in the Tyumen crash prompted some to speculate that the authorities have run out of options.

In a follow-up tragedy on April 3, a deadly fire tore through a southern Moscow market and killed at least 17 people, most them believed to have been migrant workers from Central Asia. Investigators pointed to the possibility of a faulty space heater as the cause, also noting that the migrants were likely trapped inside their metal-lined shanty, in which they lived in overcrowded conditions.

Such incidents are commonplace in Russia, where public safety standards are often skirted and the individuals responsible for overseeing such affairs are prone either to carelessness or corruption. They also beg the question of the official response. While Medvedev canceled his planned meeting with the opposition and addressed the air crash in a meeting with Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova, he simply ordered her to speed up efforts at investigating the crash and consoling the victims’ families. PM Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, remained silent. The deaths of the migrants, though a pressing issue for a country crippled by problems tied to an influx of undocumented workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia, similarly went unrecognized.

Some experts say that while some seem intent on connecting the failure of public safety to poor governance, many Russians aren’t. According to Vladimir Pribylovsky, the head of the Panorama think tank, Russians typically do not hold the authorities responsible for such disasters – nor do they expect the outpouring of official grief that might be found in the West after a public tragedy. “Traditionally, in Russia, the price of a human life isn’t very high, so no one is really fazed much by things like this,” he said. He added that Russia’s turbulent history may have also played a role in hardening society to the point at which it becomes seasoned to tragedy and perhaps more willing to accept it. “Look at Peter the Great: he killed more people in his time than Stalin did, relative to the population at the time,” Pribylovsky said. “Nevertheless, he’s regarded as the greatest and most successful figure in Russian history – and it’s not only the government that believes this, but society also.”

The views expressed here are the author’s own.
Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #25"


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