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Analysis & Opinion
24.08.09 Whose Is The Truth?
By Roland Oliphant

The disaster at the Sayano-Sushenskaya hydro-electric plant in Siberia and the near-simultaneous suicide bombing of a police station in the troubled Caucasian republic of Ingushetia last Tuesday brought back memories of the terrible accidents and terrorist attacks that blighted the early years of this decade. For some independent journalists and bloggers, they also resurrected suspicions about the authorities’ competence and cynicism.

Last Tuesday morning at around 11 a.m. a blast ripped through the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric station in Khakassia, Siberia, destroying three turbines and killing at least 12 people instantly. Over the next several days dozens more bodies were recovered. The death toll stands at 69 at present. Six people are still unaccounted for. Then, at around 8 a.m. in Nazran, but one hour later because of the time difference, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives through the gates of the central police station. Twenty people were killed and over 100 injured.
Other than the timing, the two blasts have little in common. The Kremlin has dismissed attempts by the Islamist group behind the Nazran attack to also claim credit for the Sayano-Shushenskaya blast as “idiotic,” and it probably was grand-standing on the terrorists’ part. And, though tragic, neither the terrorist attack nor the industrial accident is equal in terror to the worst such incidents to strike Russia in recent history – the sieges of the Dubrovka theater in 2002 and the Beslan school in 2004, and the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000.

But if the scale and death toll do not stir memories of those dark days, the authorities’ handling of the incidents has.
Tales of survivors trapped beneath the water line, banging on pipes in the hope of being heard, immediately brought to mind the sailors of the Kursk. The police’s inability to protect themselves, let alone the public, from suicidal terrorists recalled the helplessness of the Dubrovka and Beslan sieges. And Khakassia Governor Victor Zimin’s reply to a question from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about what measures had been taken to help the families of the victims – “additional forces of OMON riot police” – was a chilling reminder of the authorities’ disdain for relatives of the victims in each of those cases.

Zimin’s remark may have been a case of foot-in-mouth, helped along by a bit of selective editing by newspaper editors. The transcript of the exchange on Putin’s Web site says that “OMON and special troops are involved” in the clean-up and rescue operation, which, as one commentator on LiveJournal noted, “doesn’t sound so stupid.” But the fact is that comparisons with past disasters have rested less on the victims’ similar predicament than on the repetition of delay and apparent obfuscation on the part of those meant to be helping them.

The accusations appeared on blogs and independent Web sites almost immediately. At the center of the current storm is Mikhail Afanasyev, the editor of a local news Web site called New Focus, who reported on the day of the explosion that the situation was “not as simple as the authorities are trying to make out.” Rumors of as many as 100 casualties were already circulating, and, said the Web site, workers from several enterprises in Abakan had been recommended to flee at least 100 kilometers away from the city.

On Thursday, August 19 the Khakassia Prosecutor’s Office announced that it is opening a court case against Afanasyev for using “the Internet magazine New Focus to spread false information, discrediting the honor, dignity and business reputation of the republic's leadership and the Sayano-Sushenskaya power station.”

It is not clear exactly which of Afanasyev’s statements was libelous, but his blog entries seem to have taken on the official coverage on two points: that the authorities were ignoring reports of survivors in air pockets and that there was no risk of flooding. On Tuesday, August 17 he wrote that “no one in the republic” believed the authorities’ assurances that there was no threat of flooding, and reported that many residents fleeing to Krasnoyarsk had caused traffic jams.

Afanasyev’s LiveJournal blog sees him batting away accusations that he is undermining the rescue effort. “We only want to save lives,” he wrote. “In Siberia, human life is far more valuable than in Moscow,” apparently in response to comments that assumed he was more concerned with making a political point than with the victims. He has welcomed the opportunity to defend his reporting in court, writing that witnesses could include “the diver who said that the necessary rescue equipment was not available on the first day.”

In the ensuing debate in the Russian blogosphere, Afanasyev’s supporters have cited Kursk, Dubrovka and Beslan when asked why they should not trust the official version of the events. But in reality the differences with these disasters is stark. “In each of the former disasters the tragedy was a result of government action; and in each of them the government had much more control over what kind of information was released,” pointed out Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center. Unlike the bungled rescue of the Kursk or the hideous mishandling of the hostage crises at Dubrovka and Beslan that led to hundreds of casualties, the deaths last week cannot be directly pinned on the government.

And there is another, very significant difference. The Kursk disaster in particular was a public relations disaster for Putin. Just months into his presidency at the time, he took days to leave his holiday home in Sochi, was pictured hosting a barbeque while men drowned, and later made deadpan jokes about it on the Larry King show. He had publically dithered, and despite his later defense that he was “just as well connected to events in Sochi as I would have been in Moscow,” he seemed to realize that it was an error he could not repeat. “It is not surprising that Putin learned a lot after the Kursk,” Petrov said.

That is putting it mildly. Putin’s response to the Sayano-Shushenskaya disaster was, from a public relations stand point, flawless. He organized a public video conference the same evening (at which Zimin made his unfortunate remarks about OMON), dispatched a series of envoys, and by the end of the week was on the ground himself. He even made a point of frankness – “we all know what has happened – let’s not pretend,” made the regional governor look silly (OMON are all very well, but I asked about what you’re doing to help people) and unilaterally extended the RosHydro’s compensation package to families of the missing as well as those confirmed dead. President Dmitry Medvedev, who handled the bombing in Nazran, was not far behind, quickly firing the republic’s interior minister and condemning incompetence on the part of law enforcement agencies.

As a result, the anger of the dissenters has been aimed more at the local authorities and the institutions of power that have not developed the same highly oiled sense for public relations that the federal center has. But for those at the very peak of the power vertical, the question is how long that imbalance can be maintained. “The problem is, that’s all they’ve got,” said Petrov. “After Kursk, Beslan and Dubrovka the central government’s public relations got much better. But their actual crisis management has not come on at all.” And in a system where the regional governors are appointed by the federal government, the president and the prime minister cannot pass the buck forever.
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