Thursday, 25 September 2014

Russia- new laws- old scores

New laws proposed on limits on media ownership in Russia, language and history tests for foreign workers, a possible limiting of skype and the seizure of foreign state assets. Nasty ideas from a nasty regime say opponents. Russian businessmen worry about a return to the days of the Soviet 'evil empire' of sham democracy, ruthlessly centralised control and isolation.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Russia's sub par submarines- Trouble under the surface of military reform

Things are not looking good for the nuclear and conventional military arsenal Russian generals love to use in their sabre rattling threats.

In the past few weeks there have been three separate worrying indications (two submarine accidents and a missile test failure) that the $650 billion being snatched away from Russian schools and hospitals and thrown at the military budget may be money down the plughole, and that's even without the corruption to take into account.

The Russian nuclear powered submarine Tomsk was undergoing repairs near Russia's far eastern port of Vladivostok on Monday when it burst into flames and burnt for five hours. The Defence ministry eventually changed its story and admitted that fifteen sailors had been wounded in the fire, contradicting its earlier certainty that everything was totally fine. It was the second fire of this kind on board a Russian submarine in less than two years.

The first was the submarine Yekaterinburg which also burst into flames in its shipyard in north western Russia in December 2011. Officials said at the time that there had been no nuclear missiles on board. That was a lie said one respected magazine afterwards, citing its own sources. This caused an international furore with Norway's Foreign Minister among those demanding the truth. A terrifying thought.

Staying on the subject of submarines, in August this year an Indian submarine INS Sindhurakshak was rocked by two huge explosions and fire ripped through the vessel as it sat in dock in Mumbai. Eighteen sailors on board were killed by the blasts and the boat sank in the port. It is one of India's worst ever naval accidents. That submarine was bought from Russia in 1997. In 2010 it had been sent to Russia and refitted with Russian cruse missiles. Investigators say it may have been the weapons on board, possibly those missiles, that exploded causing the disaster. There are nine more 'Kilo-class' submarines like that one which India bought from Russia. The Indian government has now been forced to review its safety systems on board all of them.

Russia's submarine woes don't end there. In November 2008 the fire extinguishing system on the Russian submarine Nerpa went off as it was doing sea trials. Compartments on board were flooded with deadly gas, killing twenty. Despite the catastrophe that submarine has since been leased and then commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra.

But the greatest tragedy of them all since the collapse of the Soviet Union was on the Russian submarine Kursk. In August 2000 explosions on board sank the Kursk in the Barent's sea. Those of the 118 crew not killed by the explosions had time to write notes before the oxygen ran out. All the while the Russian government of then new President Vladimir Putin refused help from other countries which might have saved them. The criticism of Putin, who stayed on holiday in the south of Russia and said nothing to a distraught Russian people for five days as the horror of the Kursk catastrophe unfolded, was vociferous and remains to this day.

All of these accidents have occurred since the year 2000 making Russia's public record on submarine technical safety far worse than that of any other country.   

Lets go back to those nuclear weapons and missiles, the one's Russia prides itself on above all. Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov loves threatening people with them. In November 2011 he announced that,"I do not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war, including using nuclear weapons." For him it seems the cold never ended and as analysts pointed out that violent sabre rattling was directed straight at Europe, the US and NATO.

Except that he may not have as much firepower as he thought. On September the 6th the much hyped 'Bulava' submarine launched ballistic missile (yes we're back to submarines again), made to carry ten nuclear warheads, failed a test launch….again. That's eight times out of at least nineteen launches of the Bulava that the missile has fallen out of the sky, as this one did, or variously been declared a flop. The Russian military maintains the Bulava is the only way to update Russia's nuclear submarines, and of course takes for granted that they must be updated. There is no debate about even the possibility of perhaps not keeping up those huge numbers of expensive nuclear missiles. Instead it's back to the manufacturer once again for more testing. 

The news of eye watering corruption at the Defence Ministry that just keeps coming out is too vast to go into here, but is holding back the promised modernisation of Russia's armed forces embarrassingly. And even without it, the Russian state, so ready to boast about its supposed military might, is being found wanting. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Sobyanin's works frenzy- Maddening and endangering Muscovites before the mayoral election

Take a look at the video and picture above. It's of Bolshaya Dmitrovka street right in the heart of Moscow. The Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre are a few minutes walk away. It's full of tourists and Muscovites alike even as you look, either rushing to and from work or meandering while seeing the sights. Or at least they are trying to, because this street is now absolute chaos, and a potential death trap.

As one walks down it there is no special pavement for pedestrians. They have to pick their way through rubble, shunting lorries, swinging digger buckets and pneumatic drills. It's a wonder someone hasn't been maimed or killed. The workers seem to be in a terrible hurry as there has been no thought given to even the most basic public health and safety. It's an unacceptable travesty of public works planning. It seems they are desperately trying to finish the pedestrianisation of the street as quickly as possible. Want to know why?

Ask Sergei Sobyanin, incumbent Moscow mayoral candidate. Opposing him is main contender Alexey Navalny then Sergey Mitrokhin, Ivan Melnikov, Nikolai Levichev and Mikhail Degtyaryov. But none of his opponents have the resources at their command that he does. He's chosen to start what Muscovites are derisively calling a 'Pharaoh's building programme'. I'm sure he hopes it will win him votes. But as you can see from the picture above it is frustrating and endangering the lives of people in the city. The timing of the projects are atrocious. Who would want to start works like this at the height of the tourist season, in the middle of summer? Sobyanin would, and presumably because he wants them finished before the election on the 8th of September. I've seen diggers blasting their horns or slamming on the their brakes next to pedestrians trying desperately to navigate the last disappearing slivers of asphalt. Such is the abandonment of any pretence of health and safety in the rush to finish the new street that pedestrians on and around it are at very real risk of injury or death. That would be a perfect PR gift for the mayor's opponents. 

All over Moscow roads are being torn up and re-laid at a newly furious pace. As screaming drivers are driven out of the their minds by traffic jams in places they would never normally be they shout that the roads were fine before. Why are they being done now and with such illogical haste? Why indeed. 

Floods in southern Russia- Some justice for Krymsk victims at last, but not enough.

Many of Krymsk's houses collapsed under the weight of the water and many of the dead were asleep inside, unwarned and unable to get out in time.

It was the night of the 6th July 2012 in the small town of Krymsk near the black sea. As locals slept there and in nearby areas in Russia's southern Krasnodar region they were unaware of flash flood waters surging toward the town. Six months worth of rain had fallen in one night. They would have had a better chance if the local authorities, who knew what was happening hours before the surge hit, had warned them properly. 

As it was a virtual tidal wave smashed into the unsuspecting town. More than 170 people drowned as the waters rose in minutes. Terrified survivors fought for their lives as their houses collapsed around them, clinging to fences or any debris that managed to stay standing as the deluge flipped cars over in the streets and filled properties with trees and debris. I was one of the first outside journalists to arrive in the wreckage of Krymsk. Bodies lay in the streets and aid was slow to arrive, enraging the distraught locals. There was no electricity and very little edible food or water left. At the town's mortuary, unusable in the blackout, bodies had to be stacked in refrigerated supermarket lorries.

What had formerly been someone's bedroom.

But what most angered the people of Krymsk and the surrounding area was that this gut wrenching tragedy was an avoidable one. 

Over a year later the start of some justice has finally been seen to be done for the bereaved and angry residents of Krymsk. Four local officials have been found guilty of criminal negligence for their failure to warn people on that terrible night. Vasily Krutko, former head of the district administration, Vladimir Ulanovsky, former Krymsk mayor, Victor Zhdanov, head of the district emergencies and civil defence department and Irina Ryabchenko, former head of the Nizhnebakamsk local administration were all convicted of negligence. 

But their crimes are more disgusting even than that. Krutko, Ulanovsky and Ryabchenko have also been found guilty of hurriedly forging documents after the flood, lying that they had adhered to proper practice and warned people in time. Zhdanov was also found guilty of actually stealing compensation money meant for victim's families. 

While three of the defendants deny their guilt, only Krutko accepted it. Prosecutors have asked the court for sentences of six, four and a half and three and half years imprisonment for Krutko, Zhdanov and Ulanovsky respectively and a suspended sentence of three and half years imprisonment for Ryabchenko. 

Another defendant, Nadezhda Kurochkina has made a guilty plea bargain in a separate trial. She was head of the Prigorodny settlement in the area and is on trial for negligence and forgery.

The bloated faces of unidentified victims are posted up as bodies are carried out refrigerated supermarket lorries to be placed in coffins.

However one figure is conspicuous by his absence in the doling out of punishment. Alexei Tkachev, the regional governor and a man heavily involved in the horrifically corrupt Sochi winter Olympics plans, visited the shocked and betrayed residents shortly after they had just learned that his administration could have saved them from this catastrophe. 

All this time later, as the verdicts were announced, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said, "The people were defenceless not only from the elements but, as the investigation has discovered, also from bureaucratic indifference." 

But back then, as Alexei Tkachev stood in front of a furious crowd they yelled questions about why they weren't warned. He had the temerity to yell back, "what did you expect us to do! Go door to door!" Yes was the answer. Yes that is precisely what you should have done, as Mr Tkachev and the deadly complacency and corruption of Krasnodar's authorities was drowned out by the shouting of a people betrayed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thumbnail- A car crash in Moscow there and gone

A car and a motorcycle have crashed. There is oil and wiper fluid across one of Moscow's badly surfaced roads. On the grass lies the motorbike driver. I don't know if he is dead or just hurt. An ambulance turned up shortly after I took this picture.

And half an hour later, nothing. A snapshot of life and catastrophe, unfolding then swept away like a crisp packet on a dusty city wind.  No one passing this spot now would ever know what had happened here such a short time before. The drama, the tension; a little tragedy among millions casting a fleeting shadow over some forgotten road bend. But I was there. I saw.

More flooding expected in northern China and far eastern Russia

The first reports came in around Wednesday the 7th of August. Massive flooding had hit northern China and far eastern Russia in areas surrounding the Heilongjiang River (known as the Amur river in Russia). Thirty settlements were evacuated as the Zeiskaya hydropower plant discharged huge amounts of water to prevent it from being overwhelmed. A state of emergency was declared in several Russian regions as rivers burst their banks and sixteen settlements were flooded. Thousands were evacuated as roads were washed away, necessitating boats and local army units to bring supplies in and people out.

In northern China it's been called the worst flooding in decades. Four people have already died there with thousands evacuated. More water is expected in the coming days, sweeping down the Heilongjiang river along the border with China and Russia and then flowing north into Russia's Khabarovsk region.

One of the biggest problems in Russia will be paying for the cleanup. A Deputy Finance Minister has already admitted that Russia's reserve fund equivalent to $300 million for 2013 has already been used up. They may, he admitted, have to raid the 2014 fund to pay for the cleanup. The damage in Russia is so far estimated at around $30 million.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Thumbnail- A quick haul from the shopping mall

A women carries her child, in pram, across train tracks. It's one of the only routes to one of Moscow's largest shopping centres approaching from the north. There are three tracks to cross with no footbridge, underpass or walkway.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Thumbnail- There's driving and there's style....

Clearly Vika, or whoever bought this for her, are particularly concerned about declaring ownership! But whether she drives in style....
Sights like this are not rare around Moscow. This was taken by me, but for many more visit the chortle-full page-

Friday, 26 July 2013

This is Air Traffic Control Moscow- We want our money

Flying to or from Moscow soon? Well perhaps you won't be. Potentially serious storm clouds are gathering over Moscow's airports, and it's not because of the weather. Workers from air traffic controllers to baggage handlers, around 2800 in all, say they haven't been paid and may go on strike. That would affect safety, plane maintenance, cleaning and more.

Flight dispatchers say they are considering action even though they're banned from it under their labour code. Instead of actually striking they may expose the extra work they've been given (also they say a break of the code by their employer) by sticking strictly to the letter of their agreement which says that any one controller can only handle six aircraft at once. That, say dispatchers, would mean around forty percent of flights go unattended to. Their labour code even allows controllers to sit at work and do nothing until they are paid.

The sum? 173 million roubles, or over five million dollars in wages owed them by their employer, the State ATM Corporation (ironic though the name is) which runs air traffic control across Russia. The dispute has been going on since 2011. Every six months, say staff, they are supposed to have their pay adjusted in accordance with a profit growth ratio. Even though a Moscow court found in favour of the employees on May 24th this year their demands have still not been met.

The president of the federal Russian air traffic controllers labour union, Sergey Kovalev, says that air traffic controllers and others will not actually strike, merely follow a strict 'no extra work' ethos. As he says, controllers who should only be handling six planes at a time are now routinely given fifteen to seventeen to manage at once.

The state ATM corporation is refusing to comment, though they previously claimed the agreement referred to by workers is invalid, superseded by another. Whether a mark of the seriousness of this labour standoff, or an attempt a scaremongering, the country's Federal Air Transport Agency is also supporting the state ATM corporation. It says giving in to the workers' demands could lead to similar ones by regional airport staff across Russia and force up air fares.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Kursk and Prokhorovka- Seventy years on from the battle

Ninety year old Abram Yekhilevsky, "Everything burned....I don't think any living thing could stand it."

It was seventy years ago when Abram Yekhilevsky stood on the battlefield near his home of Belgorod in south western Russia near the Ukranian border. He is ninety now, but watching him remember himself as a young man, terrified amid a living hell, is humbling. He is expressive, lowering and raising his voice, pausing and waving his hands. But none of it seems designed to hide or gloss over those memories.

"I couldn't even hear my mate next to me, who was shouting at the top of his voice, amid the din. It seemed like every gun in the world was firing at once." 

Abram was caught in one of the eastern front's, and history's, biggest battles. It was summer 1943, Hitler's last great offensive to try and cripple the Red Army. Previous Soviet attacks had pushed a large bulge, or salient, into German lines around the town of Kursk. The Germans planned to attack into the base of that bulge like a crab's pincer and trap the vast Soviet forces concentrated inside.

Eighty seven year old Anna Mishnyeva. "I told my friend to shoot me if the Germans broke through."

Anna Mishnyeva was also inside the Soviet defences at the time. She was a sixteen year old signaller in the Red Army and knew of the huge battle that was raging, and the possibility that the Germans could break through. 

"I gave my friend a pistol and told her to shoot me if they broke through and I wasn't able to shoot myself. I did not want to be captured."

The battle of Kursk wasn't like Stalingrad the year before. Both sides knew a titanic clash was coming and each side's build up was obvious. But through extensive espionage, including that provided through British cooperation, the Soviets came to know a lot about German plans such as the start time of their attack. Soviet artillery started their own barrages of German positions before German artillery started what it thought was going to be a surprise bombardment, disheartening many German soldiers waiting to begin the attack.

Abram ended up fighting both in the north of the salient, near the town or Orel (pronounced Ariol, with emphasis on the 'o') and in the south near Belgorod, at the battle he is describing, a huge clash of tanks near the village of Prokhorovka. 

"The tanks were so loud. It was frightening."

Prokhorovka was perhaps the overall battle's most iconic moment, as unfair as that is to all the other desperate clashes along the hundreds of kilometres of front where the Germans tried to punch through three main Soviet defence lines. They nearly succeeded in the south of the bulge, and Prokhorovka was a last attempt to break through the the third line of defence, which would have threatened to unravel the entire Soviet defence. But the Soviets weren't sitting back passively at this point either. They wanted to blunt and destroy the German spearheads.

Living history re-enactors try to give a taste of what life was like inside a military camp of the time.

The result was one of history's largest tank battles across this rich, gently lilting landscape of farmland, woodland, small rivers and streams. German and Soviet formations, with tanks, infantry and artillery crashed headlong into each other. The was little manoeuvre, little finesse could be added by the generals. It was a furious, desperate slogging match under a 30 degree summer sun. German tanks, especially the heavy 'tiger', could shoot further and more accurately than Soviet tanks, so the Red Army crews drove fast and up close to the Germans to negate their advantage. But the result was a maelstrom of clashing metal as Abram witnessed.

"One tank would ram into another. Everything burned. The tanks burned, the ground burned. I couldn't imagine any living thing being able to stand it."

Ninety year old Ivan Shevtsov. "It was very frightening.... all I could think about was survival."

For eight hours the battle raged. Infantry tried to hold trenches as artillery shells rained down and aircraft battled in the skies and strafed them from above. Ivan Shevtsov, also now ninety years old, was fighting for his life in the Kursk salient. He has hit twice by shrapnel, once is his leg and once in his liver.

" It was very frightening and by the end of the battle all I could think about was survival."

The result was a tactical victory for the Germans who destroyed more Soviet tanks and killed more men. But neither side achieved what they had wanted, both withdrawing from the battlefield. The Soviets however could more easily replace their losses, not that that made it any easier for Red Army soldiers like Abram to cope.

"Of 45 of my comrades who had been around me 7 of us were left alive. When we emerged from our trench you couldn't find a patch of earth to sit down on. The ground was littered with bodies, covered with them. One officer who you would expect to be a hard man, when he saw how many young men were dead, he wept such tears."

The Germans began to lose ground soon afterwards. The Red Army had finally managed to beat them on their own terms, blunting and then reversing a major German summer offensive. For the rest of the war the initiative would remain with the Soviets. They would bleed and batter a route all the way to Berlin.

The memorial tower on the site of the battlefield at Prokhorovka.