Monday, November 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Residents Downstream from Troubled Sayano-Shushen Dam Seek Its Closure

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 16 – More than 1800 people who live downstream from the troubled Sayano-Shushen Hydroelectric Dam have signed an open letter to Moscow calling on the Russian government to shut down the dam and drain the reservoir behind it lest another accident destroy the places where they live or even cost “hundreds of thousands” of lives.
But even as the residents of Khakassia and Krasnoyarsk kray published that appeal, which includes support from the expert community, officials of the emergency situations ministry and RusHydro, which oversees the dam, announced plans to restart the generating plant that was shut down August 17th as a result of an accident.
In their letter to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the residents of the Yenisey floodplain below the dam say that they are appealing to them because “much that we knew at the level of rumors [before the accident] has now been confirmed by authoritative scholars and specialists” (
“There is no basis for not believing these conclusions” by disinterested experts in articles in “Kraasnoyarsky rabochy,” “Fizika zemli,” and “Geologiya i geofizika,” the writers say, just as there is “not basis for trusting those leaders and specialists of all levels who know about the problems of [the dam and the reservoir] but all the same continue to assert that all is well.”
The statements of the latter represent one “deception” after another, the writers say. Officials associated with RusHydro, they continue, have denied there are cracks anywhere even though they can be seen. And they deny that there is any risk from an earthquake even though the dam is in a seismically active zone.
But the central argument in favor of keeping the dam operating, the authors of the letter say, is that the country needs the power it produces. To that, the authors respond in two ways. On the one hand, they insist that “the main thing is not economic calculations and profits but good sense, for life of people is dearer than anything else!”
And on the other, they argue, if the dam is shut down and the reservoir drained, then the government will not have to spend the 40 billion rubles (1.3 billion US dollars) that Russian officials have said will be necessary to repair the damages from the August accident and bring the dam up to acceptable standards.
For those reasons, the signatories continue, they call on the country’s two top leaders, the only people they say who can take this step, to agree to “drain the Sayan-Shushen reservoir and close the Sayan-Shushen Hydroelectric Dam.” And they urge that they do so quickly and publish their answer “in the mass media.”
Not surprisingly, RusHydro and its backers both in the region and in Moscow immediately launched a media counterattack, arguing that the local residents are misguided and misinformed, that the experts they cite are overly alarmist, and that everything about the dam is absolutely “normal” (
But as Dmitry Verkhoturov, a Siberian commentator who specializes on ecological questions, notes, people there “have already heard these speeches.” Indeed, he says on the portal, such claims now that everything is fine are exactly the same as the ones the same officials made before August 17 (
It is not clear what the residents who might be flooded out in the event of another accident will do if, as seems likely, Medvedev and Putin decide to allow RusHydro to proceed. But their letter is part of a broader trend of complaints by the population to the two leaders, one that may either lead to more actions or simply be an occasion for letting off steam.
In a commentary on this trend, Aleksandr Yekimov, an analyst in the Russian National Democratic Movement, says that Russians are making appeals to the president and prime minister because they have been unable to get lower-level officials to pay attention to their grievances (
While some may be inclined to view this simply as the latest manifestation of the traditional Russian belief in “a good tsar with bad boyars,” Yekimov argues that in fact it represents an effort by “law-abiding citizens to find peaceful means of resolving their conflicts with arbitrariness” within the rules set by the Russian Constitution.
That document unlike the American Declaration of Independence, he points out, does not allow for revolt. Instead, it makes the president the “guarantor” of constitutional rights. But Yekimov pointedly asks, “what are the people to do” in the event that the “guarantor” does not at the end of the day guarantee their rights as established in the constitution?

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