Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Dam Disaster Affecting Siberians the Way Chernobyl Affected Ukrainians

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 26 – Just as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident convinced many Ukrainians that they did not want to remain part of the Soviet Union, so too, despite all the differences in the extent of the disaster, the Sayan-Shushen dam accident is leading many Siberians to conclude the same thing about remaining part of the Russian Federation.
In the current issue of “Novaya gazeta,” journalist Aleksey Tarasov says that in the wake of the August 17 dam disaster, “Siberia is changing” in large measure because “the cheap electric energy” which the dam provided in “compensation” to that region for all that Moscow has taken from it is now a thing of the past (
The shift from inexpensive hydro-power to the vastly more expensive coal-produced energy will affect “all the industry” of the enormous region as well as the lives of people there who have grown accustomed to “cheap electricity.” And Moscow’s call for cutting back use of power at least in the near term is thus especially infuriating.
“Different times are coming to Siberia,” Tarasov continues, “and that means different ones are coming to Russia as well.” Unfortunately, he says, “the reaction of the government [to the latest disaster] shows that [Moscow] either is not in a position to understand that or does not want to.”
One might have thought that this was the ideal time for Moscow to show that it is prepared to view Siberia as something other than “a colony,” the “Novaya gazeta” journalist argues. But instead, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “in the first hours after the catastrophe” voiced his support for RusHydro and the construction of even more hydro-electric dams.
That and Putin’s promises to subsidize the owners of the Sayan-Shushen dam may help oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska to keep their profits high, Tarasov continues, but by themselves, these steps are unlikely to do much to help Siberia develop a more modern and diversified economy with “energy saving technologies.”
In short, the journalist notes, “the powers that be made sure it was understood that they would not allow RusHydro to suffer,” however much Moscow’s past policies and current approach are having exactly that effect on Siberians, people who are smart enough to recognize that the government’s promises to them as opposed to those to the oligarchs are not worth much.
The powers that be in the Russian capital have failed to recognize two things: first, the Siberians of today are a very different group than those of a generation ago, and second, the media coverage of the Sayan-Shushen dam disaster has been far more extensive and raised far more questions than the coverage of Chernobyl in 1986.
In the 1990s, Tarasov points out, Sayanogorsk “became a Siberian Chicago,” with “a large fraction of active and ambitious men. They have great expectations from life. And that life is now being destroyed -- because its foundation was the indestructible and eternal hydro-electric power station, ‘designed to withstand even a direct nuclear hit,’ as they learned in school.”
“These people,” Tarasov writes, “are now burying their friends and observing the reaction of the powers that be and their propaganda apparatus,” the effort by officials to deny responsibility by shifting it from one thing to another and to suppress coverage by bringing criminal charges against one journalist, actions that have been covered in the media.
And reports on those aspects of the disaster are only part of the vastly greater media coverage of this incident and the reactions of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, coverage that has had a much greater impact on Siberians than all the propaganda that Siberian “separatists” have been conducting.
Many in Moscow and elsewhere continue to comfort themselves with the notion that it is wrong to draw any parallels between the impact of Chernobyl on Ukrainians and the impact of Sayan-Shushen on Siberians. After all, they say, Siberia has “nowhere to go.” But that is not quite the case, Tarasov suggests.
“Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, only a politician who did not need public support could fail to speak about the necessity of decolonizing [that region with its immense natural resources] and the establishment of a Siberian (Eastern Siberian, Central Siberian and Yenisey) Republic” as a goal of Russian policy.
Under Putin, however, no one remembered “Siberian separatism” because Moscow had “buried the theme of regional patriotism.” And efforts by the supporters of that idea seldom found much support. But if a problem is not discussed, Tarasov says, “it does not disappear. It simply goes into the underground.”
The Sayan-Shushen dam disaster and even more the way Moscow has mishandled it and the media have discussed it suggest that Siberian separatism may be about to re-emerge and challenge not only the relationship between Putin and the oligarchs but also that between “the colony” of Siberia and the imperial center.

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