Alexander Arkhangelsky, Alek Akhundov Izvestia, July 11, 2001, p. 1

The Kremlin appears to be a quick learner. Last year’s Kursk submarine disaster provided an example of how state officials shouldn’t act in an emergency. This year, the government is quicker on the uptake. But how many more disasters do we have to survive in order to teach democracy to our government?

On July 10, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, head of the state commission investigating the Tu-154 plane crash near Irkutsk, told journalists about preliminary findings. One week passed between the crash and this news conference. Several months passed between Kursk nuclear submarine disaster (August 12, 2000) and Klebanov’s first official statement that a torpedo explosion might have caused the sub to sink (February 2001). In both cases, casualties were about the same. And even though the scale of the disasters the two state commissions are investigating is incompatible, there is some evident progress in the government’s attitude toward public opinion.

At his news conference, Klebanov stressed that the cause of the Tu-154 disaster has been established: the pilots made a major error at an altitude that made it impossible for them to bring the plane out of its spin. Experts have yet to discover the cause of the crew’s “inappropriate actions” in an outwardly problem-free situation. According to the technical commission’s conclusions, until the collision with the ground the aircraft’s systems, engines, and center-section were functioning normally, the autopilot had been switched off by the crew, and weather conditions were normal.

A siren sounded to warn the pilots that the angle of approach was too steep. The siren is clearly heard on the radio exchange record. Eleven seconds later the aircraft went into a flat spin which lasted for about 20 seconds. According to Rudolf Teimurazov, deputy head of the Interstate Aviation Committee and head of the technical commission investigating the Tu-154 crash, it was absolutely impossible to avert the disaster in this situation. All the crew had time to do was throttle up the engines, which only brought the deaths of the 136 passengers and nine crew members closer. At the moment of impact, the plane’s engines were working at full throttle.

What caused the aircraft’s tragic spin? Devices capable of determining the crew members’ emotional state based on the tone of their voices prove that the situation in the cockpit was absolutely normal prior before the plane went out of control; in the next 11 seconds, there was panic in the cabin. Experts with the state commission are currently studying the late pilots’ previous history to find out how they spent the few days immediately before the disastrous flight. Overwork is out of the question: the commander and the co-pilot who was at the controls when the plane crashed had flown about nine hours each over the three days before the accident, well within normal limits.

The conclusions of the state commission have already become a topic of debate. According to the Vostok-Media news agency, someone from the Vladivostok-Avia airline is convinced the onboard automatic systems could not have permitted the pilots to take the plane beyond the critical angle of approach, even if the pilots had made a serious error.

The only positive aspect about this tragedy is that the government has started to show it is capable of learning. It has not repeated any of the mistakes that had such a bad impact on public opinion during the prolonged Kursk disaster: the president responded immediately, and full details were provided. Furthermore, the news coverage of the Irkutsk crash was presented against a significant political backdrop. We all remember the covert way in which the fate of the national anthem was decided. Now let’s compare it with the decision on the death penalty. Many liberals listening to President Putin’s speech to participants in the global conference on law and justice understood him as saying that he would personally like to strangle terrorists; but failed to perceive his words as a speech against capital punishment by a politician most of whose supporters are in favor of capital punishment. From this viewpoint, Putin’s speech was flawlessly structured: while aligning himself with the majority’s feelings, the president simultaneously drew the opposite conclusion: “The state must not claim the right to take human life away, a right which belongs only to the Almighty.”

This is not the behavior of a state functionary. This is a gesture appropriate to a public politician.

Of course, the situation is still far from ideal. True, there was almost no delay between the commission’s findings and Klebanov’s news conference – but why “almost”? Should an objective evaluation necessarily require authorization by a political leader? Or can it be altered depending on a senior official’s response?

We are still miles away from normal democratic standards. But we seem to have drawn closer to them by one tragic year.