Russia's grim summer

 

AS RUSSIANS mourn their worst sporting tragedy, they are also lamenting the parlous state of transport and infrastructure across the worlds largest country. The plane crash that killed 36 players and staff of one of Russia’s best ice hockey teams on Wednesday was the latest disaster of a grim summer, during which scores of people died in other air accidents and 128 drowned when an ageing pleasure boat sank on the river Volga. President Dimity Medvedev yesterday announced an overhaul of the Russian aviation sector and demanded a “drastic” reduction of the number of airlines operating in the country.

Earlier this summer, Mr Medvedev ordered two Soviet-made workhorses of the Russian airline fleet to be taken out of service after two crashes. Those who asked how Russia could replace these aircraft got their answer yesterday: buy them from abroad if Russia’s plane-makers are nable to build modern, safe, affordable aircraft.

Mr Medvedev said much the same in July to defence chiefs, following a series of missed deadlines, unfulfilled contracts and botched jobs as Russia spends €500 million on rearming its military. Again, he ordered officials to buy foreign weapons if Russian manufacturers were not up to the task; again, a once-mighty Russian industry was shown to be in disarray. Last summer brought its own bleak revelations, when huge wildfires raged across Russia and savagely exposed the dearth of fire-fighting equipment in the provinces and the inability of many local bureaucrats to act professionally in a crisis.

Energy-rich Russia has enjoyed a decade of high oil prices but its basic infrastructure is still crumbling, a failure that rests with former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin. Rather than overhauling everything from transport to hospitals, from schools to the space programme, and diversifying the economy away from raw materials, Mr Putin has focused on strengthening the security services and giving big jobs to loyal dullards who will not rock the boat.

Accidents keep happening in Russia, but top officials are never sacked as a result; and when Moscow does invest in major projects, much of the money is wasted and stolen, so little changes. Mr Medvedev vows to change all this, but he might not get a chance. If, as many predict, Mr Putin returns to the presidency in next year’s elections, Russia’s slow decay beneath a skein of “stability” could continue for years.