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Russia's Power-Plant Disaster Highlights Decaying Infrastructure

Russia's Power-Plant Disaster Highlights Decaying Infrastructure

Russia's Power-Plant Disaster Highlights Decaying Infrastructure

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The recent catastrophic accident at Russia's largest hydroelectric plant has reminded leaders in Moscow of the urgent need for inspections and repairs of the country's mostly Soviet-era infrastructure. Long before the deadly accident in Siberia in August, Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry had warned that the dam at the power plant was in a dangerous state of neglect, yet little was done over the next 10 years to prevent its tragic and costly failure.

The accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant highlighted the state of decay in Russia's infrastructure, and the government's faltering attempts to deal with the problem. Russian media found that authorities had warned of unsafe conditions more than a decade before a breach in the dam triggered calamitous floods that killed 75 people.

Another more general warning about the country's infrastructure came in 2005, when the Emergency Situations Ministry said more than 60 percent of all water pipes, sewage, heating and electricity networks across Russia needed replacement urgently. The ministry predicted that aging Soviet-built facilities would be a major factor in the coming years' technological and industrial accidents.

"The average age of capital equipment in Russia is more than 20 years, so to a significant degree this is still Soviet-era capital equipment in Russia's industry, whereas in the States or in western Europe that would range from 10 to 15 years," says Yaroslav Lissovolik, who is chief economist for Deutsche Bank in Moscow.

"I think Russia did not have enough time. Russia started its modernization effort and the effort of upgrading infrastructure in earnest in 2006, and it simply just didn't have the time. You need decades in order to complete this huge task," Lissovolik says, "For Russia it was only two years."

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Critics say for years, the Kremlin was urged by independent experts and some ministries to invest its oil and gas billions to fix not only power plants, but also decaying roads, bridges, buildings, agricultural and industrial machinery.

Shortly after the August accident at Sayano-Shushenskaya, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told his ministers that Russia must conduct a thorough check of all strategic and vital parts of the country's infrastructure, and come up with a plan for regular equipment upgrades.

Masha Lipman, an analyst in Moscow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the task requires more than just political will; also important is the Kremlin's ability to manage local officials across this vast country.

"The problem is that the Kremlin, the government in the center, cannot do everything. This is one reason why we have poor manageability: they have to delegate responsibilities. We have leaders and local managers, governors and low-level managers, and not all of them are conscientious and not all of them really do what they ought to do. Putin may sound stern - angry - and give orders, but the fact of the matter is, what should be done is not done," Lipman said.

Another problem with managing the country, Lipman says, is the lack of opposition groups and free media in Russia - people who could question authority.

Last December, Mr. Putin warned that 80 percent of Russia's heating network - a lifeline for a country with cold winters - needs repairs.

Before the financial downturn hit, the Russian government was planning major public-sector infrastructure spending. Now analysts say the main focus will be on social needs until at least next year, when - and if - the Russian economy picks up.