Archive for November, 2011

Putin and the Boo-boys

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

MOSCOW – With a week to go until Russia’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the stage on Sunday, Nov. 27, in front of 11,000 hooting, flag-waving United Russia delegates. He delivered a vigorous, nebulous speech about how long he has served his country (his whole life) and led a few cheers (when I say “Russia,” you say “Hoorah!”). Then he formally accepted the party’s nomination to represent it in the March presidential elections, which he will win in a landslide. It was both a formality and a preemptory victory lap, as well as a strange repetition of the September party congress, at which he and still-president Dmitry Medvedev agreed, essentially, to swap places. But if September’s convention — held at the same Moscow sports arena as the one yesterday — was a curve ball, yesterday’s festival of triumphalism was both expected and bizarre.

“This optimistic tone does not correspond to the depressive, anxious mood of many in the country right now, and it was unclear who it was aimed at,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. Pavlosvky pointed out that Sunday’s fanfare smacked of the “pre-crisis” era — that is, the end of Putin’s first, petroleum-fueled run as president. That chest-thumping tone was fine then, says Pavlovsky, but “today, it just looks anachronistic.”

Much has changed in the years since Putin formally stepped down from the presidency. With Medvedev’s arrival came talk of modernization, a détente with the United States, a bit more oxygen in the system. But in the two months since the Medvedev-Putin swap — which seemed to dismiss all of that goodwill as formalities — something else has changed, too: What was once easily classifiable as public apathy has quickly fermented into a very palpable dissatisfaction, and it is one that is increasingly breaking through the surface, even in places where it is not expected.

The most notable — and most symbolic — of these bubbles has been the “booing revolution.” It started earlier this month with a concert by a legendary Soviet rock group Mashina Vremeni (“Time Machine”) in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which was going well until an emcee announced that the concert had been sponsored by the ruling United Russia party. He couldn’t finish his speech because the sudden wave of booing was so loud. Later, the local authorities threw the emcee under the bus — they were not sponsoring the concert, and he was just a provocateur — but Kemerovo started a trend. A couple of weeks later, at a Cheliabinsk hockey game, the captain of the local team (“Tractor”) skated onto the ice and read a speech praising United Russia and the Cheliabinsk governor. The crowd didn’t stop booing until the player had skated back to the bench. Afterwards, Tractor’s fanclub clarified that “we were booing not Antipov [the team captain] who read that speech with a sour face, but the situation itself, the governor of Cheliabinsk, and United Russia with its inappropriate attempt to promote itself.”

The main event, however, came on Nov. 20, when Putin showed up at a Moscow stadium for a mixed martial arts fight between Russian Fedor Emilianenko and American Jeff Monson. Emilianenko won, and Putin decided to congratulate his compatriot by climbing into the ring and praising him as “a real Russian knight.” The problem was that few people could hear him over the sound of 20,000 people booing and shouting “go away!”

When the video went viral, Putin’s press secretary called a quick press conference to explain that the people in the stands were actually booing Monson. But hearing this, Russian fans took to Monson’s Facebook page to leave shout-outs of “respect” from different corners of Russia. “Jeff,” one Russian fan wrote, “all whistles were only for Putin and for his party — they are the greatest thiefs in our history [sic].” Many of these Facebook fans were not at the fight that evening, but the fact that they — and those who were — gave Putin his first public drubbing ever was highly significant: martial arts have always been Putin’s hobby cum official, heavily patronized state sport, and its fans have always been a loyal legion. This was not, in other words, the liberal intelligentsia shouting him down; these were Putin’s own guys. It is also hard to take Putin’s spokesman’s explanation seriously if you consider the way the fight and Putin’s back-patting were televised nationally: the crowd’s booing was carefully sliced out. (Another telling detail was that Putin simply did not show up to two similar events later in the week, where he was listed as the headliner.)

The numbers tell their own story. United Russia, the party created to support to Putin but of which he was never a member, has been sliding in the polls. On the eve of the last parliamentary elections, in 2007, it was scoring a firm two-thirds in national polls. This time, it is hovering just above 50 percent, having lost nearly ten points just since May. But these are national polls. In many regions — in St. Petersburg, in Astrakhan, in Kaliningrad — United Russia is doing far worse. These are also regions where, to everyone’s surprise, A Just Russia, a party created by the Kremlin, in 2006, to siphon off left-wing votes, is taking on a life of its own with vibrant, popular candidates who are addressing local issues in a way that governors appointed by — and subservient to — Moscow simply cannot.

The official response to these rumblings is similar to one that we saw in the municipal elections, in August, in St. Petersburg, where in response to United Russia’s abysmal ratings, the party brazenly barreled through any sense of propriety and legality to deliver 90-something percent results for its candidate.

This autumn has seen this unapologetic approach embraced nationwide. In Izhevsk, a city in the Ural Mountains, the mayor told a group of veterans that the amount of money they receive in the future will be directly proportional to the results they deliver for United Russia on Dec. 4. Then he outlined the earnings brackets. In Chuvashia, in the Volga River basin, a polling station was made into a United Russia shrine. In Astrakhan, United Russia promises voters an election day raffle in which the prizes are two new cars. And in Moscow, campaign posters for United Russia were nearly identical copies of billboards put up by the federal Central Election Committee to get out the vote. Asked about the unsavory, and likely illegal, coincidence Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin asked the reporters interviewing him to put aside their naiveté. “Why pretend?” he said. “Of course we are not separate from political parties. When we talk about United Russia, we mean that the Moscow city government and party are, in fact, one entity.”

While such tactics are evidence of what one source here called a “deer in headlights” feel in the couloirs of Moscow, it is also a testament to a fed-up-edness outside. This time, however, there is a key difference. The wider public know about most of these violations because voters have registered them on their smart phones, which means something crucial: they understand a violation of electoral law when they see one. In the video of the mayor of Izhevsk’s speech, for example, you can hear the person holding the camera saying, “Oh, wow. You’re violating the constitution, and electoral law!” It’s not quite challenging election law at the Supreme Court, but the simple act of recording such a speech and posting it online, of registering a complaint that a polling station is advertising one party alone, shows an understanding of what is and is not acceptable — and an interest in seeing such things done properly.

This runs counter to one of the central theses of Putinism: that Russians are not yet ready for democracy, which is why it has to be carefully managed by a steady hand. This idea, known for a time as “sovereign democracy” and now as evolutionary, no-more-shocks democracy, made an appearance in Putin’s speech on Sunday, as did a new trifecta of the system’s values: “truth, dignity, justice.” It is a slight update on the chicken-in-every-pot theme of stability, but events on the ground seem to point to the fact that Russians are increasingly savvy — and sensitive — to being taken for fools by their authorities, and that promises of stability and prosperity are ringing hollow as the chaotic 1990s fall further and further behind, and as real issues born of the current system have taken their place. This echoes, in some ways, the inflection point in the post-War Soviet Union, when the ideological argument of historical perspective lost its bite.

It is also a sign of political ripening. “Politics” is still a dirty word in Russia and is defined as a mucky battle for power, but there is a growing recognition that it is also a tool for changing one’s daily circumstances. In Moscow, more people are talking about going to vote for somebody, anybody, than four years ago, when it was deemed pointless. The dissatisfaction with United Russia officials in the regions is perhaps a sign of a growing understanding that truth, dignity, justice — and even bread-and-butter stability — depend on a process of transparency, accountability, and fairness. And that Vladimir Putin, no matter how wonderful, cannot and has not really addressed the fact that, say, the growing cost of utilities is fast outstripping pensions. “There’s a growing interest in economic and local issues, while interest in ideological issues is decreasing,” says Pavlovsky. “The power structures in the regions are too weak to deal with them, because when a local boss decides what to be scared of — Moscow, or his subjects — he’ll pick Moscow.” This is the fatal flaw of the power vertical slowly coming home to roost.

But it would be a mistake to take this restlessness for a sea change just yet. The resentful mood is a sign of many things, but it is still too early to tell if this germ will sprout, or sour. And here, the numbers tell a story, too. Much has been made of Putin’s slipping approval ratings. Only 31 percent would vote for him for president, according to the independent Levada polling center. But his closest rival is the communist Gennady Zyuganov — with 8 percent. Still a landslide. As for Putin’s approval ratings, they have, in fact, fallen, from 80 percent — to 67 percent. That’s an approval rating that most world leaders don’t have on the best of days. (A euphoric week after Barack Obama was sworn in, his approval rating was 65.9 percent.)

Despite any political ripening born of annoyance, Russians are, on the whole, still not making a crucial connection. A significant and growing portion of Russians recognize the long-term concentration of power in “one set of hands” as a danger, and see a cult of personality forming around Putin. The number of Russians who see the government as a center of corruption has more than doubled over the last decade, to almost one third. And yet, Putin’s approval rating is an enviable, healthy 67 percent.

And this indicates that, in spite of everything, the system is still working pretty well. The Internet, key to propagating election violations and fomenting discontent, has made huge inroads in Russia, but it has still not tipped television, where Putin reigns supreme, into irrelevance. Many people were outraged and distraught by the thought of Putin unabashedly coming back to power, potentially for another 12 years, but two-thirds of them aren’t. A Byzantine, corrupt electoral system still keeps those who could become a vessel for this discontent from being listed on the ballot.

What’s left? The street — and very few people are gathering there as of yet. “It’s a mood, not a movement,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center. “This dissatisfaction is not becoming action, at least not on a large enough scale. The fact is, the system has a colossal advantage in that they’re dealing with a society that so loves to talk and to discuss and to joke and to snark, and yet is so bad at organizing itself.”

It’s still too early to tell whether this kind of organization will ever happen or if it could reach a critical mass. If United Russia doesn’t hand itself a victory grossly at odds with its poll numbers (it avoided making this mistake in 2007), chances are the system can hobble on a good while longer. Just how much longer, though, may depend on how long they can take the booing.

Putin and the Boo-boys [FP]

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”?

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

In a near unanimous vote on Wednesday, the St. Petersburg city parliament passed the first draft of a law that would ban what the Russian press has labeled “homosexual propaganda.” Actually, and if we’re to be precise, the law would fine people for “public actions, aimed at propagandizing sodomy”—literally, “man-laying” in Russian—“lesbianism, bisexuality, [and] transgenderness among minors.” Violators would be subject to fines ranging from three thousand rubles (about $100), for individuals, to fifty-thousand rubles ($1,600), for organizations. The fines and language are the same for those propagandizing pedophilia, more or less inserting an equal sign between the two.

The sponsor of the bill—it still has to go through two more votes to become law—is Vitaly Milonov, from the ruling United Party. He explained the legislation by saying, “children have to be protected from destructive information.” What that meant was subject to interpretation. According to Milonov, this information could be found in sex-education classes where such values were “advertised,” as well as in the works of that gay cabal—show business. This was not in any way meant to be an intrusion into the personal lives of Petersburgers, Milonov added, but what could he do when his city is drowning under “a wave popularizing sexual perversion”?

Milonov’s colleagues chimed in, lumping sexual assault of a child in with consensual gay sex. “Children maimed by pedophiles jump out of windows, they take their own lives. Pedophilia is an attempt on a child’s life!” one of them said, adding that spreading such propaganda should be a criminal offense. Another deputy, Elena Babich, from the nationalist-crazypants Liberal Democratic party, agreed that the proposed penalties were too light. “What is a three-thousand ruble fine to a pedophile when they are supported by an international community?” (Did she mean show business?)

The legislation, which was rushed through the local parliament, is not unique. A similar law was passed this summer in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, where legislators expressed concern about the effect of gays on the city’s already low birthrates, and in the Ryazan region. But those were the provinces.

St. Petersburg, long Russia’s window to Europe and its bastion of high culture, is both a strange and logical place to pass such a law. For one thing, it was the first place with an L.G.B.T. organization: Kryl’ya (or “wings”) was founded in October 1991, having fought for its creation in the Soviet courts at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized and punishable by five years of hard labor. (That provision, the notorious Article 121, was repealed two years later, in 1993.) Moscow used to have a mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who denounced homosexuality as “satanic.” St. Petersburg, in contrast, was in some ways the center of organized gay life in Russia: the Russian branch of the I.L.G.A., the international L.G.B.T. rights organization is run out of St. Petersburg; pride parades, long the subject of violent battles with the Moscow authorities (who won’t allow them), have passed through this city peacefully, until this year. Imagine passing an anti-gay law in San Francisco.

“They upset me more as Petersburgers,” said Igor Kochetkov, of the LGBT Network, one of several gay-rights groups based in the city. “St. Petersburg has always been a European city, a city that’s very different from the rest of Russia, where the level of civilization, of intellect, of simple common sense is much higher.” Kochetkov added, “It’s no secret that life in Russia is difficult, and there are a lot of poorly educated, frightened, phobia-stricken people who are ready to be against anyone who doesn’t look like them, who lives better than them.”

Despite the elitist strain in that comment, there is also much truth in it. I witnessed a flamboyantly racist Russian March earlier this month, with blue-collar youngsters shouting “Fuck the Jews!” and “Allah is a fag!” Playing to a very low common denominator, especially when Europe’s economic crisis threatens to spill over to Russia, is a very dangerous game. “We’re not just fighting for our rights,” Kochetkov said, of the picket gay-rights groups had set up outside the city duma. “We’re trying to save Russia from fascism.” And there is a bit of truth in that, as well.

The passage of the draft legislation shows that attacking the supposed enemies of “family values” can be an easy pleaser come election time everywhere. Russia has only eighteen days to go until the parliamentary elections. The results will doubtless be adjusted to keep an increasingly unpopular United Russia in power. That adjustment will have to be biggest of all in hyper-educated, cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where United Russia has one of its lowest poll numbers in the country. Rallying the party’s naturally conservative, less affluent, less educated base against a horde of pernicious, perverted, effete homosexuals and/or pedophiles—they too are portrayed as foreigners, planted and financed by the West—is an easy, if unsavory, last-ditch play.

And yet, under the seriousness of fomenting hatred and inscribing discrimination into the legal code, there has also been a streak of irony and humor in the response to this development. It’s especially fitting in a country where public displays of machismo can often bleed into the homoerotic. How, for example, will this law affect the annual celebration of Paratrooper Day, when, all over the country, thousands of former paratroopers get drunk, strip to their skivvies, and frolic in city fountains, splashing and wetly embracing? Is that homosexual propaganda? And, as a Russian friend pointed out to me, what about the ruling tandem? When Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin go bike riding together, when they have intimate public breakfasts, when they are forced to deny that they’re married, when they play badminton, when they ski and drink cocoa and fish, often in matching outfits and in the total absence of women, what about that?

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”? [TNY]

Vladimir Putin and the Guy Code

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Buried in the Russian news cycle last week was a little ditty about a man named Vladimir Putin and an organization called the Federation Fund. Vladimir Putin, we know. We came to know the Federation Fund, as I blogged about this summer, suddenly, last December, when, with almost no one having heard of it before, it staged a giant gala featuring Hollywood A-listers of yore, and Putin’s rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” in English.

The Fund was ostensibly raising money for children with cancer, but it turned out that it had only been registered ten days before the event, and, worse, that the money might not have actually made it to those sick children. “I know people are ready to do a lot for their own gain,” the mother of one sick girl wrote in an open letter published in the Russian press. (Sharon Stone had visited the child in the hospital and given her a necklace.) “But really, are they willing to do it with the help of sick children?” The answer, apparently, was a resounding yes. As I wrote in July, just seven months later—and despite a media scandal—the Federation Fund held another fundraiser, in a spectacularly prominent venue with an even splashier lineup: Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Isabella Rossellini, and “Sex and the City” ’s Mr. Big, to name a few.
The man behind the fund, Vladimir Kiselev, was said to be an old friend of Putin’s from the freewheeling St. Petersburg of the nineteen-nineties. This was something that Kiselev denied—but Putin, through a representative, didn’t. Only a connection of this kind could explain why events as contentious and controversial as the Fund’s fundraisers were allowed to operate in such open extravagance: Putin, it’s well known, is very, very loyal. The man’s loyalty to his friends is often described as that of a patzan, a bro, a dude, a—pardon me—homie. Fans of “Jersey Shore” will recognize his code as “guy code”: loyalty to your guys above all. And Kiselev, it seems, is such a guy.

The latest Federation Fund event has been taking place for three weeks in Kaliningrad, that little Russian island in the middle of Europe. This time, it looked like a Russian version of a DARE convention. It included anti-drug messages, a bike race, a regatta, concerts, and, finally, an appearance by Vladimir Putin.

“If, as a result of these actions, even one person doesn’t get hooked on the needle, or finds the strength within himself to say no to drugs, that’s already a victory,” Putin told the screaming, photo-flashing masses. “This really is a tragedy,” he went on. “But those who found themselves in a tragic situation need to know that those close to them—their families, their government—are not indifferent to their fate.”
The event reflects one of Putin’s main obsessions: “a healthy way of life,” which means no drinking, no drugs, and celebration of sports and exercise. (Putin once showed up on a Russian music channel for the finale of a televised hip-hop battle—a “Battle for Respect”—and extolled these virtues.)

This is, of course, a worthwhile message. Russia has a colossal drug problem—and by drugs, we’re often talking cheap, home-cooked, flesh-eating substances. Given that drugs are said to kill some hundred and twenty thousand people a year according to the official statistics, and given that Russia’s population is already shrinking, the government is not, in fact, indifferent. (At the higher echelons, this means waging a propaganda war on the evils of drugs; lower down, it means ordinary cops moonlighting as narcobarons and cashing in on the flow.)

And so Putin enlisted his buddy, a buddy who had been flagrantly and publicly embarrassing—a particularly emphasized no-no among Putin buddies. It seemed to observers that, having tested Putin’s patronage and his patience, he was now giving something back. Either that, or Putin is simply ignoring the bad press and getting behind his buddy—as he also likes to do—and gracing his project with his presence, and his loyalty. (This, of course, is my interpretation, but when I called Kiselev to get his interpretation, he didn’t pick up the phone.)

The event was all over the official press: in the Russian government newspaper, on the page of the ruling United Russia party, and, most significantly, on the television news. There was footage of Putin thanking an unnamed group of people. “I congratulate them from my heart for being able to organize such events,” he said.

Because this, too, is part of “guy code.” One can be loyal to one’s boys publicly, but, in private, one must make them pay for their mistakes. Thus Putin never fires anyone, he simply promotes them out of the way. And yesterday’s event was nothing if not about “guy code.” Back in the spring, Putin took part in an anti-drug event called “No to drugs! No to anabolics!” There he uttered a phrase that would not only stick but would become the title of the event in Kaliningrad and soon pop up on billboards all over Russia. He said: “Dudes! You don’t need this!”

Vladimir Putin and the Guy Code [TNY]

Why Russia Is The World’s Deadliest Place To Fly

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

On Sept. 7 a plane departed Yaroslavl, a small city about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, carrying the region’s legendary pro hockey team, Lokomotiv. Within minutes of liftoff it plummeted directly into the banks of the Volga, exploding into flames. Forty-three of the 45 people on the flight died quickly. The other two just wished they had. Forward Aleksander Galimov waded ashore, to rescue workers who couldn’t recognize him. “Galimov had no face on him,” a policeman told a Russian paper. “No eyes, no ears, just holes.” He died five painful days later. Video then surfaced of the plane’s engineer, Aleksander Sizov, being wheeled into a local hospital, burned so badly that his lips had disappeared, begging for poison.

Yet it’s hard to call something an accident when it happens so regularly. Barely a month goes by without something falling from the Russian sky: Rockets, satellites, MiG fighter jets have all come crashing down in the past year. In June a plane crashed into the runway in the northern capital city of Petrozavodsk, killing 44. In July a plane began to break up in flight just outside of Tomsk in western Siberia, killing six. And most notably, a Russian plane ferrying the Polish president and half his government to a commemoration last spring of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers crashed in the fog outside of Smolensk, killing everyone onboard.

Such anecdotes generate the kind of harrowing statistics that underlie a systemic collapse. This year serious accidents occurred at a rate of three per million flights–more than 12 times the global average. “Russia’s safety record is about as bad as it was in Soviet times,” says Boris Rybak, a former aviation industry consultant who now runs a Moscow p.r. agency.

Some of the blame falls on the Soviet- era aircraft and those that came out of Russia’s lurching post-Communist period. (The aircraft that crashed outside Smolensk, an 18-year-old 42D model from an obscure Russian manufacturer, Yakovlev, had been due for a rehaul in the ensuing months.) But the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago, and Vladimir Putin’s ascendant dynasty began in 1999, in lockstep with Russia’s energy gold rush. The planes falling from the sky prove more the symptom of a deadly trade policy that offers a global case study in the perils of protectionism.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago its civilian aviation sector, on paper, seemed well-poised for privatization, accounting for nearly a quarter of worldwide production. The command economy, however, masked a creeping rot: The Kremlin had subsidized the industry heavily, which was broken into dozens of inefficient fiefs, each answering to the top, rather than communicating with one another. It was the exact opposite of what had happened in the West, where Boeing in the U.S. and Airbus in Europe had consolidated into profitable megafirms, each of which could efficiently handle the byzantine production process and justify the R&D this capital-intensive industry demands.

When the Kremlin’s largesse dried up, the industry virtually collapsed: Rather than hundreds of aircraft produced annually, in the 1990s it dropped to dozens. It became a literal death spiral: As Russian planes became rarer, they became more difficult and costly to service. Whereas companies like Boeing have integrated, worldwide networks to rush parts to grounded aircraft, finding a part for a broken Antonov or Ilyushin could take weeks, if it could be found at all. This resulted not only in losses for Russian airlines flying old Russian planes but also problems for Russian manufacturers, who, by the beginning of the last decade, resorted to what came to be known in Russia as “aviacannibalism”: breaking down planes for parts to service other planes.

Enter the new strongman president, Putin. Rather than embrace Western manufacturers to stem the crisis and inject some needed competition, he took the opposite tack, seeking to reimpose state control. He threw up 20% tariffs on imports of foreign jets. He publicly demanded that Aeroflot, the biggest Russian air carrier, purchase domestic jets. (“You want to dominate the domestic market, but you don’t want to buy Russian technology,” he said. “That won’t do.”) And in 2006 he essentially nationalized the industry, creating a Russian version of Boeing and Airbus–the United Aircraft Corp., civilian and military aircraft manufacturers under one roof–except that this was one of his so-called “national champions,” controlled and bankrolled by the state.

The results continued to prove disastrous. By last year Russian aircraft production had plummeted to a grand total of seven, acknowledged by President Dmitry Medvedev as a “very sad figure.” And the collective fleet continued to age–in the hinterlands, three-decade-old airplanes aren’t uncommon– resulting in more and more tragedies, culminating with Smolensk.

It’s been impossible for Medvedev to ignore this dynamic. As the hockey team was being burned alive, the president himself was, ironically, at Lokomotiv’s home arena a dozen miles away, preparing to address Russia’s political elite at an international policy forum. He had already proposed yet more reforms–these, for a change, made sense–after the Polish president’s death, cutting the number of government-backed airlines and rescinding the foolish tariff, which allowed the remainder to rejuvenate their fleets with foreign-made aircraft. “The value of human life should be higher than any other logic, including supporting domestic manufacturing,” Medvedev said at a press conference in Yaroslavl. (You can’t keep a good apparatchik down: The tariffs remained in place for small planes, as well as certain midsize aircraft.) Since Smolensk the Kremlin has dished out still more directives, such as cutting the tiny regional airlines that fly very old planes.

Too often, though, the Kremlin is simply playing a game of Whac-AMole: In June, after a Tupolev-134 crashed, Medvedev ordered it grounded. In July it was an Antonov- 24, so that model was grounded, too. Neither of which prevented September’s crash of the Yak-42D.

In part that’s because a two-decade problem, rooted in bad policy, has sunk it roots widely. These old planes came from a half-dozen firms, which produced a half-dozen models each, which means that pilots often are flying unfamiliar machines: The copilot of the Sept. 7 crash had been untrained in flying that model. Given the lousy safety culture among mechanics and pilots–more than one has been discovered to be inebriated in the cockpit–this is a terrifying prospect.

Furthermore, it’s an industry that needs volume to improve. That “sad” seven-aircraft figure means that Russian planes, says one expert, are “basically prototypes, with all the kinks and problems a prototype has.” Except these prototypes, filled with lots of jet fuel, ferry actual people around.

The market opportunity for aircraft in Russia is estimated to be $60 billion, or about 750 aircraft, over the next 20 years. For now the bulk of that deal volume with be gobbled up by Boeing and especially Airbus, which has sold 147 planes in Russia, 79 of them new, over the past 5 years. The Russian consortium’s main contender to compete with the Airbus 320 and Boeing 757 will be the Irkut MS-21, though that’s not due out until 2017. That will give us a glimpse as to whether Russia’s domestic aircraft industry will ever get its sea legs back.

Between the legacy planes and the appalling pilot culture, though, the next few years promise to be bumpy. Just in the time between when I began writing this story and when I finished, an Airbus flying over the Siberian city of Kirov had to make a crash landing, its fuselage filled with smoke.

Not Ready for Takeoff

The Russian commercial aircraft market presents a $60 billion opportunity over the next 20 years, if foreign manufacturers can break in. The underserved demand is huge: Only 5% of the population in Russia and the former Soviet republics currently flies at all. Despite the potential, projections for growth in traffic and aircraft sales in the region lags other BRIC nations. Asia-Pacific air traffic, for example, is forecast to grow 7% a year through 2030, Russia and the former Soviet states 4.2%. According to Boeing, two-thirds of the 1,080 jets expected to be sold across the former Soviet Union over the next 20 years will be single-aisle and regional jets to serve an expected increase in budget carriers. Only 40 jumbo jets may be delivered. Aeroflot has 22 of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners slated for delivery through 2017. Compare that with 180 jumbo jets expected to be sold in the Middle East. None of the airframe giants will find a wide-open market. Bombardier notes in its most recent forecast that the Russia aircraft market is “not liberalized, and access to the marketplace is tightly controlled, particularly for new aircraft.”

Why Russia Is The World’s Deadliest Place To Fly [Forbes]