NY Dispatches: The aftermath of the Superjet crash

Russia is looking for answers to questions raised by the deadly crash landing of an Aeroflot jet at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, which killed 41 people on Sunday. The tragedy and how it was handled drew attention to certain uncomfortable issues about Russia as a state.

Two days after the crash, political scientist Maria Snegovaya published a short note on Facebook, listing the ways in which official communication about the tragedy fell short of normal expectations. First, Aeroflot waited for an incomprehensibly long time before publishing a list of the victims. And when it did, the list contained the names of all passengers instead, forcing family members to compare the names with a list of survivors published by the media to find out whether their loved ones perished. Three federal television channels spent less than ten minutes reporting on the tragedy, and on the news program of the publicly owned Rossiya-1 news of the crash came second only, after a report on Venezuela. This might just have been the consequence of the authorities’ refusal to reveal the full death count until after the evening news. But this would not explain why, as Snegovaya points out, all federal channels avoided mentioning that the plane belonged to Russia’s flagship carrier. To top it off, president Vladimir Putin did not announce a national day of mourning, since Russian custom ostensibly dictates that such a day should be called only if at least 60 people have died, but more probably because he did not want mourning to overshadow Russia’s federal festivities on 9 May, the Day of Victory.

On the same day, Anastasia Dagaeva, an aviation journalist published an article on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center about the Sukhoi Superjet 100, the aircraft involved in the fire. Dagaeva paints a grim picture of Russia’s aviation industry, claiming that the “Superjet”, manufactured by the United Aircraft Corporation became popular mostly due to the hype it earned as a flagship project supported by the government, which guaranteed it a large number of sales through subsidies and tax breaks, but also prevented developers from discussing design flaws openly. This week’s disaster will likely not ground United Aircraft either, Dagaeva added, since if all else fails, the Interior Ministry or the Federal Security Bureau can chip in to prop up the company.

The story told by Dagaeva echoes other, similar stories from past years, in which questionable projects were directly or indirectly supported by the Russian state for prestige reasons and through political connections, sometimes damaging state institutions or the non-state sector. Rosneft, the poorly managed, heavily indebted oil company led by Igor Sechin, a former Putin aide, has grown through several costly acquisitions and questionable court cases bordering blackmail since 2012. These have eroded trust in the Russian judicial system and weighed heavily on Russia’s finances, most recently last year when, according to information unearthed by Reuters, VTB, a state-owned bank had to finance the acquisition of the privatization of a 19.5 percent stake in the company by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. In recent years, Rosneft has also spent billions of dollars propping up Venezuela’s crumbling regime through financing joint ventures with the Venezuelan state oil company for political reasons. Or take the Sochi Olympics, another highly corrupt vanity project. The games were originally planned to cost $12 billion, but due mostly to large-scale corruption the final figure was closer to $51 billion. The games were financed, to a large part, through the state-owned VEB investment bank, which then had to request state support.

Snegovaya’s list, on its part, shows how a Russian government, which still strongly relies on television to shape public opinion, is becoming increasingly detached from domestic issues and, unable to get its priorities right in a war-like, foreign policy-heavy public atmosphere that it itself created. Downplaying the gravity of and withholding information about major accidents and disasters is of course not a novel feature of Russian (Soviet) government communication, but it has always betrayed insecurity and the rigidness of a top-heavy decision-making structure in crisis situations. And that top-heavy decision-making is not going anywhere. In the latest iteration of turning public servants and lower-level political leaders into efficient managers, the Kremlin has recently published a list “key performance indicators” (KPIs – corporate benchmarks that have been tried out by various governments, including Russia’s, in the public sector in past decades, with very little success) for governors. These range from the state of their region’s road network to “trust in the government” (at the first place) – governors are supposed to deliver on 15 different performance indicators, all while their political authority and budgetary autonomy has been steadily decreasing for years. The contradiction, it seems, is lost on Russia’s federal leaders.

Thus the deadly crash of an airliner becomes a snapshot of a government that is trying to govern political subjects through corporate means and corporations through means of politics.

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