The Kursk catastrophe and the Russian political situation.


The tragedy in the Barents Sea made the Russian press abandon its “word-weaving” style and distracted it from closely following the intricate lines of the Russian political process. The absence of clear information about the fate of the Kursk crew the whole week through, the inadequate behavior of the authorities who wasted precious time pretending to be businesslike and making absurdly optimistic statements made various media unite in a fierce attack on the leadership.

Izvestia: “Rationality and fearlessness in actions, honesty in talking to people are traits of normal leadership. Lies and fear are traits of the Russian leadership… People’s belief in the ability of the state to protect them from harm has sunk together with the K-141 submarine. The leadership found itself on the seabed together with the submarine.”

Segodnya: “The catastrophe has proved that Russia remains the same. A human life costs nothing – at least, the hides of undistinguished ministers, false generals, and the Kremlin lackeys cost higher. Instead of proclaiming an emergency on the very first day and appealing to the entire world for help, the authorities continued their ridiculous game of the cheap “state ambition”.”

Vedomosti: “In spite of all his ostentatious resolution, the “force” president was too slow in decision-making. If the sailors are not saved, Putin will need strong nerves in order not to see the Kursk in his sleep.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets: “In order to conceal the true scale of the tragedy, these people have been “crossed out”. They were buried alive and then the leadership snowed us with vague hopes that the crew will be saved. And we believed them – we could not fail to, since there were live people there, on the sea floor. They are people for us. For some, they are a crew in a situation “beyond critical”…

Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “There is an impression that some kind of all-round defense is being built around the military political leadership… Still, they will hardly succeed in covering the inefficiency of the political and military establishment in solving critical situations by rough fact juggling.”

Political observers of different media show similarity between the tragic events of this August and catastrophes of the past, sinister symbols for former rulers. Yevgenia Albats points out in Novaya Gazeta: “The situation with the Kursk is reminiscent of Chernobyl even in the smallest details, as if these 14 years had not passed at all. The same hushing up of the tragedy until the information has been publicized by the Westerners. The same statements that the “Soviet technologies” are the world best. The same references to unfavorable conditions… Finally, just like then, when the general secretary hid his head in the sand, the president was hiding from people for four days.”

Leonid Radzikhovsky writes in the newspaper Segodnya: “I have not the least doubt that there is some symbolic significance in the Kursk catastrophe which happened just at the moment when all politicians were engaged in vague speculations about Putin’s “hundred days”.” As Radzikhovsky holds, “there are signs which are noticed (rarely) and there are signs which are left unnoticed (usually). This is the way Nikolai II turned a blind eye to the Hodynka tragedy and Gorbachev turned a deaf ear to the Chernobyl bells.”

Mikhail Leontiev, a well-known journalist, expressed his own point of view in the newspaper Veodmosti. As always, it was different from the common opinion. He is sure that the assessment and the actions by the authorities were absolutely adequate: “I can surely say that, apart from “cheerful” news by the so-called press service of the Northern Fleet in the first days of the tragedy, no official source lied… I can surely say that the rescue operation began in the first seconds after the incident, that all means at hand were used, that the rescue team worked beyond its technical capacity and nearly killed itself.” In Leontiev’s opinion, the authorities can only be reproached of the fact that “they failed in organizing their PR support in a proper way. The authorities disregarded their image in the eyes of the population during the practically hopeless rescue operation.” Leontiev fully trusts the version of the tragedy put forward by the military about the Kursk having been hit by a foreign submarine: “It is no secret that the presence of “observers” during any serious naval maneuvers is practically inevitable.” At the same time, he emphasizes that “silent disappearance of the culprit from the scene of the catastrophe is considered to be a crime even in an ordinary road accident.” Moreover, he admits that “manipulations around a sincere desire to help our sailors smell of an operation to cover criminal negligence of our civilized brothers who were the reason for the deaths of these sailors.”

It is important to say that from the very beginning, such different media as Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Segodnya expressed a suggestion that the perish of the Kursk was a result of a collision with a “killer sub”. At the same time, the newspapers differ in their opinions concerning its “nationality”: in the opinion of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the submarine was from the US, whereas Segodnya states that this was a British sub which, having been seriously damaged, still managed to “leave the sight of the catastrophe hiding in the hydroacoustic shadow of Russian ships.”

At the same time, there emerged a theory (first in the form of rumors among officers cited by Komsomolskaya Pravda) that the Kursk had been hit by another Russian submarine: “They used a missile or a special torpedo… Exercises were underway and there were lots of these subs there.” Komsomolskaya Pravda also mentions another version of explanation of the cause of the catastrophe: it is rumored that the accident might have happened when the Kursk was carrying out a dangerous maneuver called “a leap of a whale” on an order of the Commander-in-Chief. Apart from this, Eduard Baldin, former Commander-in-Chief of the Black Sea Fleet, stated many times during the week that the Kursk had been hit by a cargo ship which hid from the scene of the accident in one of Russian ports. It can be said that there is no lack in versions of the cause of the catastrophe, as well as in explanations of the behavior of the Commander-in-Chief.

There are also the first attempts to analyze political consequences of the catastrophe. In the opinion of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “the sub incident calls into question the philosophy of reforms.” The newspaper holds that the Kursk incident is another ring in the chain of serious failures by the new leadership which include the lasting tension in Chechnya and the explosion on Pushkin Square. All of this raises serious doubts not only in the effectiveness of the currently constructed “system of power”, but in the ideology of this process: “The whole powerful detachment of security officers has not yet provided effective solution of numerous problems facing the country. Now it becomes a source of the most acute problems itself.” If the president dares to admit this, the newspaper writes, “quite extraordinary tactical steps and even corrections to the initial goal of strengthening security agencies are possible in order to ease the growing social tension in the country”. If the leadership decides to follow the previous tack, “any next large-scale incident may trigger processes hard to predict and control, up to serious state crises,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta warns.

“Farewell to a Great Power” – this is how the newspaper Vremya MN entitled an article about political consequences of the events in the Barents Sea. In the opinion of the newspaper, Putin made “a decision unprecedented in the new Russian history”, having allowed our “potential enemies”, the military of the NATO countries, “touch the sacrosanct nuclear shield and sword of the Motherland, a strategic submarine, for the sake of human lives.” Other countries, the newspaper writes, could not understand why the Russian leadership lingered with this decision so long. “However, to all of us who remember how the Soviet party and military authorities preferred to leave the crew to die than accept help from the NATO in situations analogous to those of the Kursk Putin’s decision seems to be of special significance.” The article was published when the outcome of the rescue operation was not clear yet. Still, the newspaper expresses confidence that the decision itself to cooperate with representatives of the “potential enemy” will have serious consequences. “It is very likely,” Vremya MN writes, “that the influence of the military industrial lobby over making of the most important political decisions will sharply decrease.” This means that liberals will gradually force out the “so-called state supporters” from the government. Something of the kind may happen in the economy, as well: the attempts by the military industrial complex to become its “locomotive”, so to speak, will possibly fail. This means, in turn, that an active search may be launched for political ways of settling the Chechnya conflict. And finally, the newspaper predicts, “a military reform must be launched with subsequent changes in the senior leadership of the Armed Forces…”

Alexander Arkhangelsky from Izvestia draws some interesting conclusions from the events of the last week: “Apart from everything else, the current catastrophe has finally exposed the fact that the president has no press secretary. Or, to be more exact, there may be one, but not for the public. The president himself has to perform the role of the presidential public relations manager.” He is not very successful at that and irritating troubles follow one another. The result is a crisis of public trust. Izvestia holds that this is the consequence of Putin’s profession: “The new generation of Russian politicians who came not from the open public sphere, but from quiet, cool offices of secret police simply do not understand what the press is and what it is needed for.” At the same time, the Izvestia observer continues, the necessity of keeping in touch with the electorate must by no means be rejected: “If you want people to listen to you, you should talk to them, since it is impossible to listen to silence.” And it is better not to talk personally (“both because there is not enough time and because it is very boring”), but through a “talented interpreter”. Gorbachev and Yeltsin realized this, only Andropov, known as an idol of the incumbent president, managed to do without a press service. Putin, in the opinion of Izvestia should realize: “The authorities may like or dislike the press, may be indignant at it or even hate it, but there is no other tool for them to maintain a dialogue with society. And there will never be.” And it makes no sense to complain on journalists who “did not understand, distorted the facts, imposed their own interpretation”, Arkhangelsky writes: “We treat you, politicians, the same way you treat us, journalists”.

Alexander Budberg warns in Moskovsky Komsomolets: “Open joy about every failure by the authorities destroys the country.” The journalist agrees that the president “made a mistake”: “He should have interrupted his holiday and flown to Moscow,” even if this return would have been of purely advertising character, because “when in Sochi, the president received information about the situation in the Barents Sea every three hours, all the same.” Nevertheless, his return to the Kremlin might have become some sort of symbol. All of this, Budberg holds, does not give anyone the right “to disperse political propaganda over the dead bodies of the sailors”. The journalist calls on readers to recall that “Putin does not have Switzerland to rule. He has to rule a disintegrating country which is being torn apart by regional leaders and Moscow oligarchs. It is a country without any democratic traditions, with a most tragic history. And he is honestly trying to change the situation. In fact, he is absolutely alone. But if he loses this fight, if we completely disintegrate and become a confederation, as the “constructive oppositioner” Berezovsky would like, we all will lose.”

Obshchaya Gazeta develops the idea that serious changes in relations between society and the new leadership are possible by publishing the results of an opinion poll done by the National Center for Study of Public Opinion. The poll was devoted to the attitude of the population to the Chechen war, not the Kursk catastrophe, but radical changes can be observed here, as well. It is a well-known fact that the Chechnya campaign is one of Putin’s main political trump cards. Only this spring the majority of respondents were convinced that the war must be ended in victory by all means. By the beginning of summer, the NCSPO reports, the number of negotiation supporters had been equal to those of the military action. And now, in late summer, 52% of respondents expressed themselves in favor of negotiations whereas 79% assessed the Chechnya war as a failure. For the first time did the pollsters observe a new nuance in the opinions of respondents, not linked to the official rhetoric: “People see that the war turned into a partisan one and may last for years.” Society has simply gotten tired of the Chechnya war. Although this time, unlike the campaign of 1994-96, the war encountered no serious resistance in the Russian society, it simply, as the newspaper put it, “exhausted the people”. “This means,” the newspaper writes, “that the white horse on which Putin rode to state power, has stumbled.”

The results of an opinion poll done by the ROMIR research center on August 20 also enable us to state that Putin’s main resource of “nationwide support” has been called into question as a result of the latest events. As the newspaper Segodnya reports, 62.2% of respondents hold that the authorities wasted time and did too little to rescue the sailors. And only 11.2% are sure that all possible was done. “The poll results prove a sharp decline in the rating for the country leadership,” the newspaper writes. “However, the president’s image can still be recovered – it is possible to find the ones to blame, say that the president was wrongly informed, etc.” However, there are certain doubts that the situation can be fully recovered. “Having begun the second Chechnya war, Putin, in expert assessment, cured Russia from the “inferiority complex” brought about by the break-up of the USSR,” Segodnya emphasizes. “The Kursk catastrophe dispelled the euphoria. Another bend in public opinion can be discerned, which may exert an enormous influence over the further political development.”

“The sharp reaction by the press and society to the behavior of the authorities in regards to the Kursk incident came as a surprise for the latter, since it was the first time people refused to listen to the gibberish of the leaders,” Valery Yakov writes in Novye Izvestia. Quite unexpectedly for the authorities, society categorically refused “to recall the slogan of “Think of the motherland first and only then – about yourself.” At the same time, from Yakov’s point of view, even being ashamed of the deceitful leadership, one must realize that this leadership “have quite a few years ahead to rule as they please. And they have millions of subordinates who are never counted.”

“The country changed after the Kursk catastrophe,” Viktor Loshack, editor-in-chief of Moskovskye Novosti, writes. “As in the deceitful Soviet times, a gap emerged between the leadership and society.” If the public opinion is ignored, Loshack writes, it can become merciless: “Why has no one shot himself yet?” the press is now asking. However, editor-in-chief of Moskovskye Novosti holds, “the problem of our president is not heartlessness, but confrontation logic imbibed by him in his former job. According to an old Soviet KGB tradition, he divides the world into “us” and “them”. All terrible events of recent times: the Chechnya war, journalist Babitsky’s horrible adventures, the Kursk catastrophe are “their” plotting. The border between the two worlds will never disappear.” Loshack hopes that the Kursk tragedy will make society think: “Why do we, a poor country, create weapons which kill ourselves? What kind of devilish self-service is this?”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta makes quite different conclusions from the events. From its point of view, the Kursk incident is a result of “permanent under-financing” of the Armed Forces. “To avoid anything else of this kind happening,” the newspaper holds, “ships must not stand moored and every submarine launching must not be regarded as a sensation… The only way to avoid such catastrophes and crashes is to organize normal operative combat training and service in the Navy.” The newspaper suggests that a search for culprits will inevitably begin in the near future. The command of the Northern Fleet is very likely to find itself among the ones to blame. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reminds the reader that Vyacheslav Popov, commander-in-chief of the Northern Fleet, and Mikhail Motsack, commander of the staff, are “experienced servicemen who at one time led fleets of atomic submarines and have 25-year working experience. At present, they can be replaced only with much less competent people.” At the same time, it seems obvious to Nezavisimaya Gazeta that “the country is in no condition to “digest” one more tragedy”. Following the election, Putin managed to convince society that the KGB and security services “are not a dreadful monster, but quite a harmless structure capable of preserving and strengthening democratic freedoms.” In other words, the newspaper writes, society “was bought with new political techniques” actively used by Putin’s political retinue. However, now, to all appearances, “a countdown began not only for the president and his team, but for the entire political system of Russia, so actively and successfully built in recent years.” When Norwegian seismic stations registered explosions in the Barents Sea, no one, the newspaper writes, could presume that they would be strong enough to cause not only a tragedy on a nationwide scale, but a real crisis of the Russian state power.”

There is every reason to believe, the newspaper Vremya MN states, that the upcoming political season will be extremely hard for Putin. And the basis for the criticism of the actions by the authorities has already been clearly defined. Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko of Primorie (Maritime Region) announced that the Kursk catastrophe is a logic consequence of liberal reforms which have weakened the country’s defensive capability. At the same time, Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces, characterized actions by the Russian authorities as immoral and called for the creation of a parliamentary commission for independent investigation of the cause of the catastrophe. Still, the newspaper forecasts, every participant of the coming political battle will pursue their own interests. Apparently, Communists will try to use the situation for criticizing the policy of liberal reforms. Governors will try to hamper the administrative reform. The right will inevitably accuse Putin of “excessive dependence on generals of the military industrial complex and security services,” demand to adhere to liberal policies and cooperate with the West. Still, the newspaper holds, the president “will have space for maneuvers” provided he “makes tough conclusions concerning those members of his team due to whose advice the tragedy in the Barents Sea did not make political forces consolidate around the head of state, but made them unite in opposition instead.”

However, as far as the president’s damaged image is concerned, the newspaper Vremya Novostei states, the Kremlin officials do not plan any special campaigns “to wash it clean”. They think that the matter will somehow settle: “A tragedy happened, but wounds heal, including political ones.” The newspaper lays a special emphasis on the fact that there is no use worrying about Russia’s reputation in the world: “It will hardly undergo any serious changes, since it has not been too high.”