Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 158

Just days after the tragic sinking of the submarine Kursk, Russia was once again hit by disaster. Yesterday the Ostankino television tower in northern Moscow–at more than 540 meters high the world’s second-tallest man-made structure–was hit by a major fire. It broke out around 3 PM local time and was still blazing as of midday. Three fire fighters and an elevator operator were reported to be missing in the structure–believed to be stuck in an elevator. Several media outlets, citing Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, warned of the high probability of the tower collapsing. While local media reported that officials believed that a short circuit caused the blaze, a team from the Federal Security Service arrived at the scene to look into the possibility of sabotage. The Prosecutor General’s Office announced today that it was launching an investigation into the incident, and President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov met to discuss it. Kasyanov held a separate meeting today with a number of top officials, including Rushailo, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman. Putin, who was strongly criticized in the Russian press for failing to cut short his holiday in Sochi during the Kursk disaster, took a more hands-on approach in this disaster–or, at least, made certain that he was seen to be in crisis-management mode: Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who visited the scene of the fire, told reporters early today that the head of state had called him twice to be briefed on the situation. Luzhkov said that, in his view, it made no sense for Putin to put in an appearance.

The fire knocked the country’s main television channels–including Russian state television (RTR), Russian Public Television (ORT), NTV television and TV-6–off the air. Some of these channels, however, including NTV, were able to continue broadcasting by using the facilities of a smaller Moscow television channel, TNT. Top government and television officials met to discuss temporary alternative means of broadcasting, including cable television. There was already disagreement between top officials over how to proceed over the longer term. Luzhkov said that the Ostankino tower was not worth repairing. Press Minister Lesin said it would be repaired and criticized Luzhkov for saying otherwise. Russian agencies, meanwhile, quoted anonymous officials as saying that it might be weeks before the country’s main channels could resume normal broadcasting.

The Ostankino disaster was given an element of absurdist theater by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). As the TV tower blazed yesterday, the self-styled ultranationalist arrived at the Ostankino television center and held a press conference, during which he claimed that there was link between the fire, the Kursk tragedy and the terrorist bombing at Moscow’s Pushkin Square earlier this month. The website quoted Zhirinovsky as saying that all three incidents were part of a “carefully planned scenario aimed at the overthrow of capitalism, the destruction of Western democracy and communism,” and as warning “democratically minded politicians,” including the tycoons Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that they had four months to leave the country. Zhirinovsky predicted that once they did so, the terrorist acts would end (Russian agencies, August 27-28).