SCMP Friday, August 18, 2000

RUSSIA

Putin's reputation plunges over handling of disaster

DOROTHEA HUELSMEIER of Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Moscow


President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin honeymoon is over. The drama of the 118 seamen trapped in the nuclear submarine Kursk beneath the Barents Sea has exposed the Russian leader to a salvo of harsh criticism in his homeland for the first time.

Mr Putin's long silence about the accident, his possibly disastrous hesitation to accept Western help in the rescue operation and his failure to interrupt a holiday at the Black Sea resort of Sochi while the life-and-death rescue struggle ensues in the icy Arctic waters have drawn cynical commentaries from the Russian press unheard of since he moved into the Kremlin in December.

"What real heads of state actually do" ran a headline in the Kommersant newspaper owned by newly emerged Putin opponent Boris Berezovsky above details of the actions of other world leaders in times of disaster. The story said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had cut short a vacation to attend a memorial ceremony for victims of last month's Concorde crash and US President Bill Clinton had curtailed his vacation to meet emergency teams battling forest fires in the United States.

Three months after he was sworn into office, Mr Putin had still not learned how to be president, wrote the Internet newspaper gazeta.ru. "But what can he do?" a member of the presidential administration was quoted as saying. He then answered his own question by adding: "The President must be a person and not merely an institute of authority."

Mr Putin has hardly tripped up during his career as Russian leader. When a bomb explosion tore through a Moscow pedestrian underpass last week, killing 12 people and injuring almost 100, he was there a day later, visibly shaken by the tragedy as he left flowers in memory of the victims.

"The President is responsible for everything," Mr Putin said during his election campaign. The new leader resolutely fought and won a crucial power struggle with the nation's influential regional governors. Now it seems he is unable to face the catastrophe in the Barents Sea head-on.

Mr Putin gave his first public assessment of the tragedy of the Kursk on Wednesday, five days after the accident happened. Even then his appraisal that the situation was "critical" was made on the fringes of a meeting with scientists at the Sochi resort.


The strong state that Mr Putin has pledged to create took a heavy blow with the loss of the Kursk. "State power sank to the bottom of the sea with the boat," wrote the Izvestia newspaper.