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Volga disaster emblematic of Russia’s failings

Moscow — The 56-year-old Bulgaria broke almost every transport law in the books when it took more than 200 people on board for a two-day pleasure ride along a popular Russian tourist destination.

Its left engine was malfunctioning and its decks were crammed with about 50 more people than planned. Prosecutors said it had not undergone major repairs since 1980 and lacked a license to carry passengers.

And as one grieving relative screamed into a national television camera when the shock of Sunday’s disaster began to settle: “There was a storm warning out! Why did they ever set sail?”

Dmitry Medvedev — a 45-year-old president with an eye on making Russia into a beacon of reform — sat down with his government on Monday for another post-crisis meeting after a technical disaster.

“We have enough old tubs floating around,” Medvedev deadpanned into a national television camera.

“And if we got away with it until now, this does not mean that something like this could not have happened. And now it has — and with the most frightening of consequences.”

The Bulgaria disaster is threatening to claim the lives of more than 100 people and become the biggest civilian shipping accident in the country’s post-Soviet history.

It comes weeks after a deadly disaster forced Medvedev to recall some of Russia’s older Tupolev jets and just months after a simple fuel miscalculation set Russia’s satellite programme back by at least a year.

The toll from Sunday’s boat accident overshadowed the fact that Medvedev on Monday also recommended the removal from service of the smaller Antonov 24 jets after one crashed into a river and killed five people in Siberia.

Russia’s once-proud craft have been having problems for decades and the Kremlin has been adamant that with time — and proper state funding — industry will eventually get back on track.

What has Medvedev and some observers more concerned is that Russia now seems to be going through a period in which most of its accidents are explained not by technical failures but by human errors and oversights.

Several cases — like this weekend’s boat accident — also appear to be linked to criminal neglect.

“Human life does not seem to be worth much in our country,” remarked Transparency International watchdog member Yuly Nisnevich, also a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

“This is what the authorities are telling you when the law enforcement authorities are siding with with the criminals instead of protecting the people,” Nisnevich said.

Sentiments like these stem in part from the impunity with which some Russian organisations appear ready to flaunt the law until getting caught.

Medvedev made a point Monday of putting the powerful Investigative Committee in charge of the criminal probe and asking his prosecutor to take a closer look at the tour operator involved.

But his doubters complain that Medvedev is too politically weak to push through real changes and that he has been recently trying to shift blame on government aides, especially ahead of next year’s presidential election.

“All this talk about modernisation is only making the situation worse,” said independent political analyst Boris Kagarlitsky.

“The country needs to refit its rusting pipes and pave its roads and get some new sewers,” said the analyst.

“And all they do is talk about building Skolkovo,” Kagarlitsky said in reference to what Medvedev hopes will soon become Russia’s version of California’s Silicon Valley.

Dmitry Zaks / AFP / Expatica