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August, the Cruelest Month
(TIME.com Europe) -- After a fire knocked out Moscow's landmark Ostankino TV tower, a depressed mood overcame Moscow.
There is more than just the injury of losing the world's second-highest TV tower -- at 540 metres -- that for the last 33 years has been as much the symbol of the Russian capital as the Kremlin. There is more than "the biggest catastrophe in the history of television," as Oleg Dobrodeyev, head of the State Russian TV and Radio put it after some 18 million people in and around Moscow lost all their TV and most of their radio programmes.
There is even more than the sadness of losing three lives in the Ostankino fire, or the thought of yet another disaster to add to the Pushkin Square bombing and the loss of the Kursk submarine.
What there is in Moscow is a mood of approaching doomsday. "We have exhausted all the stocks, left over from Soviet times, but failed to create any new ones in the decade of what passed for reforms," says Moscow veterinarian Natalya Klokova, 38. Her bitterness is reflected right across Russia.
The Soviet Union had back-up TV systems in case of failure caused by war or a catastrophe. Even back in 1993, when the Ostankino TV transmitters were switched off during the Communist-Nationalist putsch, backup studios immediately picked up the signal. But they have now collapsed. The main underground military backup TV center in Sofrino, some 40 km north-east of Moscow, is flooded after years of neglect.
The devastation goes far beyond the realm of television and radio. Most equipment now used in Russia dates back to the 1960s. It has had no proper maintenance over the past 20 years. According to the Ministry for Emergencies, two-thirds of catastrophes in the country are caused by "inefficient maintenance, or failure to have it in due time" rather than by natural cataclysms.
Some 53.3 percent of Russia's railway rolling stock is in a poor state through wear and tear. Two-thirds of Russian ships and road vehicles, including both heavy trucks and cars, are overdue for the scrapyard. Almost 70 percent of machine tools in Russian factories are worn out. In the chemical and oil industries, that rises to as high as 80 percent. Some 25 percent of electrical power facilities are expected to stop working by the end of this year. At least two million Russians live in houses that are decrepit or at risk of falling down upon them: last year 27 people died buried under debris in various building collapses.
To mend this crumbling infrastructure, Russia needs investments to the tune of some $50 billion a year. The investment peak last year was half that. President Vladimir Putin said in the wake of the Ostankino fire that it reflected "the overall state of our country," and that "only bold economic reform" could improve the situation. But again, Putin's actions don't appear to match his words.
The only TV channel not wiped out by the Ostankino fire is the private NTV station, hated both by the Communists and the Kremlin. The TNT channel that belongs to the same holding company as NTV -- Media-MOST -- and the company's NTV Plus satellite dishes still carry their signal to some 1.7 million Muscovites. Sales of dishes went up 40 times in the two days after the fire. Which indicates that real market reforms could have transformed Russia, given a chance. But rather than privatizing them, the Putin government is bent on keeping TV transmitters under even harsher state control after the fire.
It also wants to control NTV. To this end, the Kremlin is leaning heavily on Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopolist and a major NTV creditor, to buy out the station for its debt, rather then let it restructure and pay the debt out to Gazprom. If that happens, the NTV management could be replaced with more compliant people, ones who would toe the same line as the state-run channels.
The government has decreed that the state channels be restored in Moscow as the first priority, rather than the NTV one. By the end of Wednesday, the state-run RTR TV was back on air in several Moscow districts. It was transmitted on the same channel as Russian Public Television (ORT), 51 percent of which belongs to the state, the other 49 percent controlled by tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Once a Putin loyalist, Berezovsky now opposes the Russian President. The talk of Moscow is that the Kremlin will use this opportunity to merge both channels, and finally ease Berezovsky out of ORT.
There is some morbid irony in the fact that Muscovites have been used to the idea that all the news in Russia emanates from the capital -- and they are the first to get it. Now, the country at large watches newscasts on what is happening in Moscow -- while Muscovites don't know what's going on around the corner. As is their wont, they seek consolation in cynical humor. "The fire at the Ostankino tower was caused by its collision with an American or some other NATO country's TV tower," runs the latest joke, mocking the official line that the Kursk collided with a foreign sub.
The latest string of disasters adds to Russians' fear of the month of August. So many ominous things have happened in August in modern history: the hard-liner putsch of 1991; the humiliating capture of Grozny by the Chechen rebels in 1996; the economic crisis of 1998; now the Pushkin Square bombing, the Kursk disaster and the Ostankino tower fire. Well, this disastrous August is finally over. Sadly, the Russians' troubles are not.
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