Sub aftermath igniting Russians

The ability of foreign teams to achieve what the military couldn't adds to public ire.

Among military and government officials, all the old defensive habits came back. But the tragedy of the submarine Kursk has exposed a new Russian political culture, one where public opinion - nudged by an increasingly independent media - is emerging as a potent political force. Moreover, the culture is gaining so much momentum that it is likely here to stay.

The burning question on the streets of Moscow now, for example, is why Norwegian divers were able to pry open a hatch of the sunken submarine in one day, when Russia couldn't do it in a week.

Until last week, the story out of Russia depicted a vigorous, telegenic young President Vladimir Putin adroitly manipulating his public image and successfully muting media criticism. But that began to change with bewildering speed after the Kursk, a giant nuclear attack submarine with 118 sailors on board, sank in the Barents Sea 10 days ago. All of the crew is now confirmed dead.

The huge public backlash, prodded by reports on the Internet and radio, forced the government to change its position. For the first time ever, the Northern Fleet held a "live" press conference. The government relented and accepted help from the West. And Mr. Putin finally cut short his vacation and returned to Moscow.

"Crisis is, by definition, an abnormal situation that brings out hidden qualities in people," says Jean Toschenko, chief editor of the Journal of Sociological Research, a publication of the Russian Academy of Sciences based in Moscow. "The authorities initially neglected public opinion as a factor, which is what they have always done. But within days, they suddenly found themselves sharply at odds with an aroused public that was no longer willing to readily believe what they were told," Mr. Toschenko adds.

In Soviet times, all information was controlled from above and the media's role was solely to convey the official viewpoint to the people, says Toschenko. Though some Soviet citizens may have had access to alternative information through the social grapevine or by listening to foreign shortwave-radio broadcasts, there was no feedback mechanism by which informed public opinion could influence the country's political leaders.

That seemed to change after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the media became at least partly independent. "Actually there has been little change, due to the financial dependence, corruption, and habitual subservience of the Russian press," says Alexei Simonov, director of the Glasnost Foundation, a private media watchdog group in Moscow. "But under conditions of cataclysm, suddenly the people are no longer passive. They demand information, and journalists remember their role is to provide it."

Public demands action

As the crisis began, the old habits of Russian officialdom were on full parade. "It's as if we were back in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded," says Mr. Simonov. "They delayed reporting the news for days, then they told piles of lies. They blamed the weather, foreign submarines, everything but themselves for the bungled rescue operation. For five days they refused to accept any foreign assistance at all."

But this time something was different. A groundswell of public anger at the Navy's refusal to accept foreign aid in the race to reach the trapped Kursk was breaking through all barriers by mid-week.

Some first appeared from directions that are totally new for Russia, such as the Internet and snap telephone opinion polls.

"I cannot comprehend our government's refusal to accept help from outside," wrote a woman named Yevgenia on a much-frequented Russian Web site last week, one of hundreds of similar comments. "Who cares about the military secrets, when the lives of people are at stake?"

A telephone poll conducted by the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station last Tuesday night found that 85 percent of respondents thought it was wrong to turn down foreign help. On Wednesday, the Russian government reversed itself and invited British and Norwegian rescue teams to the disaster site.

By week's end the mainstream media, which had begun by tamely relaying official statements, was loudly reflecting public dissatisfaction with the Navy's handling of the rescue operation.

And the authorities were starting to listen.

Igor Zhivilyuk is a military expert with Polyarnaya Pravda, a leading paper in Murmansk, the Russian city closest to the disaster zone. Mr. Zhivilyuk heads the paper's team of journalists working on the Kursk situation today, but recalls that he covered the Barents Sea sinking of another Soviet nuclear submarine, the Komsomolets, 11 years ago.

"In 1989, we were not allowed to write a single word about the catastrophe that was not passed through censors," he says. "Several days after the fact we published a bare announcement, with no details, and considered that very advanced journalism at the time."

When the Kursk went down, officials of the Russian Northern Fleet reacted exactly the same way, he says. "But then things changed. I'm pleased to tell you that last Friday the Northern Fleet held its first press conference in history. The admirals didn't look happy to do it, but it's clear that they were forced. Somehow the voices of the families, of concerned Russians, got through to them. It may be only temporary, but it's a big victory."

Historic broadcast

The Northern Fleet also was compelled to accept a single television crew - from the state-owned RTR network - to broadcast live reports on the unfolding rescue effort from the deck of the Peter the Great, the fleet's flagship. "That's another historic first," says Zhivilyuk.

The media has taken up the public case on another issue related to the disaster: President Putin's failure to break off his vacation at a subtropical Black Sea resort to handle the crisis.

"People at first didn't blame the president," says Toschenko.

"But they began to wonder why Putin wasn't showing the same anxiety and concern as all other Russians. They wondered why he wasn't coming on TV to inform about the situation. And for the first time, their anger started to be reflected in the press."

By yesterday, some newspapers were going beyond all previous limits to attack the president. "If the Kursk had sunk in the Black Sea, where would Putin have spent his vacation?" ran a headline in Moskovsky Komsomolets, Moscow's most popular daily.

"Now people are even talking about impeaching Putin," says Vladimir Petukhov, an analyst with the Institute of Social and National Problems, an independent Moscow think tank. "Although we have no scientific opinion surveys yet, I'm sure the Kursk affair has destroyed Putin's ratings. I'm not sure this sudden shift is good or healthy for society, but it is undeniably a reaction to the past."

Is the new dynamic here to stay? "I believe things have changed in the makeup of our society over the past 10 years, and these changes asserted themselves in this painful situation," says Zhivilyuk. "The authorities know they no longer have the option of remaining silent. And although they don't quite tell the truth, we actually have a dialogue with them. We must build on this, and try to make it permanent."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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