Towering troubles in Russia

A second highly visible disaster has sent Russian pride up in pessimistic smoke.

It wasn't the fact that one of Moscow's most famous landmarks and Europe's tallest structure was ablaze.

Or that television sets here have been tuning in nothing but gray static since Sunday evening.

What demoralized many Russians more was that the fire at the Ostankino TV tower in Moscow was the latest and most high-profile sign of this once-proud nation's crumbling infrastructure. And it underscores the profound challenges facing President Vladimir Putin as he attempts to create a "new" Russia.

Coming just days after the loss of the flagship nuclear submarine Kursk and all on board, many Russians gave voice to their growing pessimism about returning to even the clunky efficiency of the Soviet era.

"Nothing surprises me now - not the ships that sink, or the towers that burn," says Pyotr Ivanovich, looking up at the remaining wisps of smoke that came from the 1,771-foot spire on Monday morning. "Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," he says, jokingly repeating a Soviet slogan before throwing up his hands in resignation at the tower.

Mr. Ivanovich watched Sunday night from his nearby car wash as the tower went up in smoke, and with it some of the popular optimism that under Mr. Putin Russia might overcome its Soviet inheritance and a decade of infrastructure neglect.

But widespread corruption, new priorities, and the sheer scale, complexity, and age of the Soviet infrastructure, experts say, are resulting in a string of human and environmental disasters that range from leaking oil pipelines to gas explosions and power breakdowns.

"Our infrastructure is worn down, and we can look forward to many more accidents like this ... you cannot build a new system on the quicksand we have inherited," says Vilen Perlamotov, an economist at the independent Institute for Market Problems in Moscow.

"Even where money has been allocated for infrastructure ... a lot of it has been stolen. Corruption is rife," he adds. "I wouldn't be surprised to learn that fire regulations were totally ignored at Ostankino, because all the companies [there] just bribed fire inspectors. That's how things are done all over this country. Now you see the results."

Even as the tower continued to burn, Putin admitted yesterday that "this new accident shows the shape of sensitive installations and the country in general."

"Only economic development will allow us to avoid such calamities in the future," he told a meeting of government officials yesterday.

It is a future that Russians are increasingly concerned about - and with good reason. A Russian Academy of Sciences survey in 1997 found that annual infrastructure investment in the 1990s had been less than 25 percent of the 1989 Soviet-era level.

There are already suspicions that poor maintenance may have contributed to the fire at the TV tower, which was built in 1967. Opened at the peak of the US- Soviet cold war rivalry, it supplanted New York's Empire State Building as the highest structure in the world.

But when a short circuit in the electrical wiring for one of Moscow's many paging companies caught fire, the built-in fire protection mechanisms failed to work.

Up to four people were still trapped in a collapsed elevator yesterday, though two revolving restaurants and broadcast facilities for six Moscow TV stations had been evacuated. TV service was cut across most of the capital. The only two national networks, run by the state, went off the air temporarily on Sunday too.

But the tower and the submarine incidents are just the most visible examples of Russia's challenge, experts say.

"For the past 10 or 15 years, the infrastructure was not maintained properly because there is neither money nor the wish to do it. Russia faces a huge problem," says Ivan Blokov, an infrastructure specialist with the watchdog group Greenpeace-Russia.

Leakage from oil pipelines, for example, is so bad in one northeastern district that official figures estimate that 70 percent of the pipelines must be replaced. Annual leakage of 15 million tons of oil nationwide, Mr. Blokov says, "is enough to produce energy equal to that of all the nuclear facilities in Russia."

Infrastructure deterioration presents both economic and environmental problems. A massive pipeline spill in Russia's Komi republic in 1994 was, in terms of quantity, nearly three times larger than than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. World Bank and IMF credits to make improvements were paid, but the work wasn't completed, says Blokov.

STILL, Putin dissolved the State Committee for Ecology (Russia's version of the US Environmental Protection Agency) this year, putting its functions under the Ministry of Natural Resources, which is dominated by industry.

Russia should be spending between 3 and 5 percent of its GDP to correct past environmental abuses and set up future ecological security, says Viktor Danilov- Danilyan, who headed the state agency for the past five years. "In my time, we never received more than 0.2 percent of the annual state budget for environmental control," he says. "Now, it's more like zero."

Examples of breakdown are numerous. In poor rural areas, people are risking electrocution by climbing electricity pylons to cut down thick cables to sell the copper inside. Paper-thin gold connectors used in telephone exchanges have also been scraped clean.

Railroads have disintegrated, too, so that some trains must travel slower than a person can walk; spikes holding the track to railroad ties are loose.

"You can pull the rail spikes out by hand," Mr. Blokov says. "We have a lot of protective laws, but unfortunately they do not work because there are no punishments. With the state of the economy now, all we can do is observe [the collapse]."

To help prevent nuclear accidents and stop the proliferation of radioactive material, American taxpayers have helped Russia dismantle parts of its nuclear arsenal in line with strategic cutbacks required by the 1991 START I treaty.

President Putin has approved further cutbacks under START II - which has yet to be ratified by the US Senate - and has spoken of even deeper cuts. But the political will has so far outstripped Russia's ability to pick up the tab.

Much of Russia's aging nuclear-powered submarine fleet is rusting in docks. In the Northern Fleet alone, just 40 nuclear submarines are active, while 110 are no longer in service.

If the military is receiving short shrift these days, what about state-run businesses? Parts of the national airline Aeroflot have been sold off, but many wonder how much maintenance has been cut back.

"To provide security and to avoid catastrophes, you have to invest big money," says Galina Ponomaryova, a spokeswoman for Transaero company, a private airline that bought several Aeroflot jets and has received a certificate of good service for making an investment in training. Many others have not. "It must be made beforehand to avoid the catastrophe," she says.

Such preventive measures seemed absent from Moscow's TV tower. One Muscovite who said he lost his job - because the blaze put his paging company out of business - surveyed the smoking tower with binoculars.

Asked how the fire could have happened, he retorted: "Are you Russian? Then why do you ask? You know the answer yourself."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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