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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Kremlin moves to quell Kursk anger
Russian press
The press was critical of the handling of the Kursk disaster
By Steve Rosenberg in Moscow

When the Kursk sank, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that the submarine would be recovered.

At the time, he was attacked for being slow to react and for the lack of accurate official information about the disaster.

With the salvage operation about to start, the Kremlin is now making an effort to keep the nation informed.

A scale model of the barge and submarine was used for laboratory tests
Scale models and computer simulations have been used in preparation
Each morning computer worker Rosa Tsvetkova starts her day at work with a telephone call to the Russian Navy.

She is checking on the weather conditions in the area of the Barents Sea where the Kursk submarine sank nearly one year ago.

Rosa taps the information into a giant computer on her desk. Within seconds it flashes up on a special website.

The website is packed with unique underwater video of the stricken submarine. At the touch of a button you can call up the very latest radiation readings and sleek animations show how the 18,000-tonne vessel will be pulled to the surface.

Click here to see how the Kursk will be raised

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is that the site is sponsored by the Kremlin in an effort to improve its public image.

Widely criticised for the way it handled the disaster - and accused by many Russians of suppressing the truth - the Kremlin now promises to be more open.

Sergei Markov, one of those involved in the internet initiative, said: "Last year it was a huge political mistake that from the beginning the Kremlin and the government didn't pay attention enough to public opinion.

Map of the area
"Now they have recognised that it's an issue of image of authorities, it's an issue of credibility and people's trust in their own government."

It is that trust which the Kremlin is working hard to earn.

It has been offering journalists guided tours around a top-secret shipyard on Russia's northern coast where teams of engineers are busy forging the giant steel pontoon which is to lift the Kursk.

Meanwhile in Murmansk, home to the Northern Fleet, the Russian authorities are setting up a media centre at the local ice rink and hundreds of journalists will be permitted to sail to the site of the wreck.

It is all in stark contrast to the secrecy surrounding the Kursk's demise, when the world's press was kept well away.

But is the Kremlin really painting the full picture?

Pollution fears

Norway's chief radiation officer, Per Strand, accuses Moscow of withholding key information about the Kursk, in particular about its nuclear reactors - a fact which could, he believes, compromise safety.

The Barents Sea is an important fishing area and Norway fears that any leak of radiation would be devastating.

"The Russian experts are not interested in openness and transparency for other countries," he said.

"It is important to know how much radioactivity is in this reactor, what sort of security system is in place and what would happen with the reactor, for example, if the submarine is dropped down again to the bottom, or part breaking up.

Diving support vessel Mayo
The Mayo is preparing for the lifting operation
"Several countries should be involved in the monitoring during the operation but unfortunately only Russian experts are involved in the monitoring of radioactivity around the submarine."

Russian officials maintain that there is nothing to worry about. The operation - they say - has been thoroughly checked and the risks found to be minimal.

But the Kremlin concedes that openness and transparency have their limits, and for that it makes no apology.

"We're not talking about lifting some kind of fishing boat - this is a military submarine, and one of unique design," said Kremlin spokesman Igor Botnikov.

"Of course there are secrets relating to it which we cannot reveal. What we must try to do, though, is find a balance between providing the maximum amount of information while protecting our military secrets."

Rehabilitation

Meanwhile, Rosa Tsvetkova is busy keeping the website up to date.

It is a daunting task, there are hundreds of pages to trawl through. The Kremlin may now realise the need to provide a degree of accurate, up-to-date information if it is to win people's trust but there is no guarantee it will succeed.

Memories of what happened one year ago live on in the Russian consciousness. The state may now find it difficult to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of a nation which has already witnessed the inability of its leaders to tell the truth.

(click here to return)
See also:

06 Jul 01 | Scotland
Kursk salvage team sets sail
04 Jul 01 | Scotland
Russian media row over Kursk
02 Jul 01 | Scotland
Confusion over Kursk salvage
29 Jun 01 | Scotland
Divers prepare for Kursk lift
25 May 01 | Europe
Russia opens Kursk salvage site
15 May 01 | Europe
Kursk salvage hit by cash hitch
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