Following Russian ship sinking, Medvedev orders wide transit safety checks

July 11, 2011

The sudden sinking of a 56-year-old excursion boat on the Volga River led President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday to order sweeping safety checks on all of Russia’s ships, planes, trains and buses. He now must figure out how to ensure that those checks are done — and done honestly.

Russians were transfixed by the news of the sinking of the Bulgaria, which was packed with families when it went down Sunday afternoon. As many as 50 children gathered in a playroom drowned.

But turning horror and sympathy into action is difficult, especially in a country where officials’ indifference is generally met with public resignation. A hallmark of Medvedev’s presidency is that he gives directives, but they’re not carried out, as he himself has at times complained. And corruption has been especially impervious to his efforts to squelch it.

There were conflicting reports Monday about whether the Bulgaria, which sank with the apparent loss of more than 100 lives, had a legal license to carry passengers when it set off. If it did have a license, it’s not clear that it was legitimate.

Russians sitting by their televisions and computers were moved by tales like the one of a boy who drowned after he was ripped out of his father’s arms by the strong currents, or that of the mother who could do nothing as her daughter cried for help.

Now, Medvedev is trying to get his country to do something about it. “The number of decrepit vessels cruising along our waterways is enormous,” he said.

It would be difficult to find a Russian who disagreed with that. And, as if to justify his order to check all forms of transportation, an Antonov 24 airplane that was designed in the late 1950s crash-landed on a Siberian river Monday, killing at least five people. That followed by just a month the crash of a Tupolev 134, from the late 1960s, in Petrozavodsk; everyone aboard was killed.

Medvedev’s answer was to order the safety checks throughout the country. Yet his challenge is to force the people who work for him to overcome the indifference that has long been common here. More than 150 years ago, the French writer Alexandre Dumas described it as the Russians’ lack of “fraternity.” Rescued passengers from the Bulgaria said Monday that another cruise boat had passed without stopping, while people lined its rail taking photos and videos of the victims as they splashed in the river.

About 80 people survived out of a total of 208 on the Bulgaria, which was certified to carry 120. Investigators said that one of its two engines was out of service and that the ship was listing to starboard as soon as it set out. It sank in a broad reach of the Volga River as it was heading to Kazan. Reports suggested that it had turned abruptly broadside to the waves before it keeled over farther to starboard, took on water and went down.

Some crew members told investigators that they had pleaded with the captain not to set out because they were worried about the Bulgaria’s condition. They said he ignored them; along with his wife and child, he was listed among the missing and presumed dead.

The greed of the owners of ships and planes, combined with “systematic corruption,” helps to explain the frequency of such accidents in Russia, Ivan Melnikov, a Communist member of the parliament, said Monday. “Those are not individual shortcomings, but flaws of the Russian-style market,” he said, according to the Ria-Novosti news agency.

Sergei Shishkaryov, who heads the transportation committee in the parliament, said Russian legislation should be strengthened to ban the operation of worn-out vehicles and to increase the penalties for violating safety regulations.

But this is a country where many say stronger laws typically result in one thing — bigger bribes.

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