Fire at television tower offers new evidence of Russia's decay

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Moscow's giant television tower is the latest symbol of Russian pride to fall, devastated by a fire that has thrown a spotlight on the nation's increasingly decrepit infrastructure, plunging safety standards and downright neglect.

Moscow's giant television tower is the latest symbol of Russian pride to fall, devastated by a fire that has thrown a spotlight on the nation's increasingly decrepit infrastructure, plunging safety standards and downright neglect.

The blaze, which cut virtually all television broadcasts in Moscow and the surrounding regions after it broke out Sunday, follows the disaster that sent a nuclear submarine plunging to the Barents Sea floor and killed its entire crew of 118 seamen. That catastrophe brought home the decay of Russia's once-mighty navy.

From gas explosions in crumbling apartment buildings to airplane crashes, disasters have become commonplace in Russia, making the one-time superpower and technological leader a zone of seemingly perpetual calamities.

A prolonged economic decline has thrown the nation into decay, making it unable to replace or maintain its Soviet-era machinery. The wear-and-tear has been augmented by sloppiness, lack of training and plain theft.

"This emergency highlights what condition vital facilities, as well as the entire nation, are in," President Vladimir Putin said Monday at a government meeting called to discuss the fire. "Only economic development will allow us to avoid such calamities in the future."

The 540-meter (1,771-foot) Ostankino Tower, which was erected in 1967 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, has been one Moscow's most prominent landmarks and a showpiece of Soviet technological power. In recent years, it has become overloaded with equipment needed to broadcast mushrooming channels and service government communications and other needs.

"They kept putting new equipment on the tower, adding to the strain," said Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi. "We are dealing with the legacy of the past - most of our machinery is 30 years old or older."

Government officials acknowledged that the tower was working 30 percent beyond its capacity, setting the scene for possible accidents. It has never been renovated and its safety system was unable to squelch a fire that appeared to have been caused by a simple short-circuit.

"It's quite obvious that the tower's safety and anti-blaze systems were outdated," Eduard Sagalayev, the head of Russia's Broadcasters Association, said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Although the fire hasn't affected broadcasts throughout Russia, it completely cut all television channels except one in Moscow and surrounding regions - home to an estimated 15 million people. Experts have warned that the blackout, expected to last for at least several days, would badly affect a population that has grown increasingly dependent on television.

Shvydkoi called the event a "tragedy," and Sagalayev said it amounted to a "national catastrophe."

"The Ostankino Tower was a symbol of Moscow and Russia. It was a terrible blow," Sagalayev said.

Along with television broadcasts, the blaze has affected some government communications and disabled several leading paging companies.

The government has warned continually that Russia faces disasters everywhere, from airplanes to elevators, because of the lack of funds to keep aging infrastructure running safely. Earlier this year, the Emergency Situations Ministry issued an apocalyptic annual forecast that said the nation was vulnerable to myriad technological disasters, including fires, collapsing buildings, pipeline ruptures, radiation leaks and toxic chemical spills.

If the current shortage of funds for new equipment and maintenance continues, most of Russia's industrial equipment could come to a virtual standstill by 2005-2007, ministry experts warned. They said that most of Russia's industrial equipment should have been discarded years ago, but companies struggling to stay afloat and workers desperate for wages have continued to use them.

Putin recently said that only 5 percent of enterprises were using modern technology.

A steady decrease in discipline and safety standards has accompanied the decay of machinery. Unlike in Soviet times, when discipline and the fear of punishment were stronger, safety rules are commonly neglected in today's Russia. And a tendency to minimize or dismiss danger - a foolhardiness that is sometimes boasted of as a national trait - makes the problem even worse.

There are frequent airplane crashes because pilots overload their planes to take extra cargo for bribes. Natural gas explosions rip through apartment buildings because of a lack of maintenance. In rural areas, people hack holes into oil pipelines to siphon fuel, often causing fires or explosions.

Other machinery is being crippled by thieves. Hundreds of people are electrocuted every year while trying to pilfer communication wires, electric cables and train and plane parts to sell as scrap metal. Large areas are left without electricity after power lines are looted.