World View: ‘The sinking of the Kursk’ and ‘The African tourism trade’
The sinking of the Kursk
At 10.31am on Saturday August 12, a rocket-propelled torpedo on a Russian submarine misfired during the launch routine, and its highly volatile fuel exploded. A desperate effort was then made by surviving crew members to bring the damaged and endangered vessel to the surface. But just two and one quarter minutes later, a second catastrophic blast with a force of two tons of TNT blew the bow apart when the torpedo warhead detonated, and sea water plunged in. That massive explosion sent the Kursk to the bed of the Barents Sea, where it had been participating in summer exercises.
This, according to American spying activities, appears to be what happened. But while that Saturday morning brought the end for all on board, for relatives, friends and a news-aware Russian working class, it was to become the beginning of a tragic drama of common solidarity, and a striking demonstration of the power of a largely unrestricted post-Soviet media.
For families of Kursk submariners, energetic media probing of the tragedy exposed official deceit, misinformation and confusion. After two days of silence, the navy said there had been a “malfunction”. That the Kursk had “descended voluntarily”. That “contact with the crew had been established”. That “everyone on board is alive”. That a “foreign” submarine caused a collision. Perhaps worst of all, relatives and the public were led to believe that the Russian navy was making serious attempts to save any survivors by sending down their own submersible rescue craft. But it transpired that this was futile from the outset, because deep-sea divers were essential to help guide this craft by hand over the Kursk’s rescue hatch so the mini-sub could properly lock on to it, and the cash-strapped navy had disbanded all these specially trained diving teams.
Four days were lost before Putin asked for outside help, and days more before it arrived. Even an agonising wait by sailors’ families to learn whether or not their own fathers, brothers and sons were on board the Kursk only ended when the tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published the names, after bribing a high-ranking navy officer with 18,000 roubles (£450) for the list stamped “Top Secret”. There was also public anger that president Putin remained on holiday in Sochi on the Black Sea, while loved ones were imagined to be struggling for air as the submarine’s oxygen ran out.
The reality was that the huge onboard explosion killed most of the Kursk’s crew quickly, though it is possible some survived a short while longer in the stern, before the entire submarine became flooded due to structural damage making watertightness impossible. The pressure of deep water outside the submarine would have caused more blast energy to be directed internally, causing increased hull and bulkhead damage.
To make matters worse for Putin—who won the presidential election by portraying himself as a revitalising strongman who would improve Russia’s armed forces, crack down on crime and restore stability—August brought not only the Kursk’s sinking. A terrorist bomb exploded beforehand in Moscow killing 12 and maiming dozens. And afterwards, the capital’s prestigious Ostankino television tower caught fire, disrupting the viewing habits of ten million Muscovites. These events together, and Russian journalists’ recent ability to comment freely no doubt account for much of the media’s fierce and sustained criticism of the President, but many were already unhappy with the leader because of a crackdown on media organisations which had followed negative comments about Russian fighting in Chechnya—something which damaged the government during the last such war.
Furthermore, some media barons and business tycoons no longer see eye to eye with Putin, and may be concerned that a politician they empowered and made their puppet, just might harbour a notion to sever his strings. Putin has sought to blame the “oligarchs” for the Kursk tragedy, accusing them of having robbed “the army, navy and the country blind”. If the public, who already despise the super-rich businessmen, can be led to believe that their greed has crippled and endangered the armed forces, then Putin will have scapegoats, popular and military support, and the power to exert more control over privatised assets at the very least. Perhaps even order a change of ownership if so inclined.
Orgy of self-enrichment
In the eight years since Russia followed Western advice from free market touts to establish a private banking system and start privatising the state assets, a small number of people with links to officialdom became phenomenally rich. During Boris Yeltsin’s early years in power, they were preoccupied with making money. But as the 1996 presidential election approached, Russia’s new capitalists grew fearful that their orgy of self-enrichment might end. The “Communist” party candidate had a real chance of winning, so they poured money into both Yeltsin’s campaign and an anti-“Communist” media offensive, and successfully got their man into the Kremlin. When Yeltsin was coming to the end of his reign, and was intent on protecting himself and his family’s sizeable amount of grasped wealth, he had to choose both a loyalist successor and someone acceptable to the nabobs.
Enter Vladimir Putin, who hours after becoming Prime Minister was asked by the Kommersant newspaper about his relationship with the asset-owning rich, and replied “I have never quarrelled with any of the oligarchs”. Clearly, someone who knew where real power then lay, and who he had to curry favour with in order to improve his career prospects. But having achieved presidential power, Putin has sought to strengthen the Russian state and reassert Kremlin control of its 89 regions and republics, where nepotism, corruption and crime abound.
One of his first decrees ordered the resurrection of compulsory military training. More money has been promised to the armed forces. He has expressed admiration of the KGB, and last August appointed a former KGB colonel as Prime Minister. He recently unveiled a plaque honouring Russia’s war heroes which had Stalin’s name listed foremost. A commemorative coin bearing Stalin’s face has also been issued, and a new bust of the Soviet tyrant is planned for Russia’s main war memorial. This increased militarisation of society, tributes to authoritarianism, centralising of power, bonding with military chiefs and tendency to see others as being either state or anti-state—just as in the USSR era when everything was categorised as Soviet or anti-Soviet—might mean President Putin has a desire to return to Stalinist-style oppressive rule. If so, the power and privileges presently enjoyed by the oligarchs could shift Putin’s way, as he and his own associates became the next capitalist elite.
But is there not a contradiction between Putin’s expressed detest of the oligarchs, and his simultaneous commitment to improve the armed forces? After all, just whose valuable assets and territory is the Russian military defending and favouring these days? Which brings us to why armed forces and their barbaric weaponry even exist in a supposedly civilised intelligence-valued twenty-first century. It is because, just as governments compete economically to help their own nation’s businesses (keeping wages, taxes and welfare low, weakening trade unions etc), so they must compete militaristically, if they are to avoid others obtaining easy commercial advantages through armed intimidation and attack. Hence, 500 odd submarines from different countries lurk and stealthily traverse the world’s oceans today.
Training for tomorrow’s wars
What were those “exercises” the Kursk was taking part in actually for, if not training to fight tomorrow’s wars which today’s capitalism make a serious possibility? It is true that by strengthening the armed forces, Putin can also gain some electoral advantage from nationalistic prestige and pride engendered in the population, but the overriding purpose of military units and armaments is to assist the possessors of productive assets. Witness Uncle Sam’s ability to inflict the greatest level of death and destruction of all, which has meant that American capital can—does get—what it wants in the global market.
As for the Kursk, much press comment concentrated on how, after becoming a basket-case economy, Russia now has very little money to safely maintain its armed forces or decommission the growing armada of rusting nuclear submarines lying in ports of the Kola peninsula in north-west Russia. But this implies that much more cash would improve things. But is having a greater number of efficient nuclear warships in service, ready to deliver mass murder when so ordered, and enriched uranium from old sub reactors recycled into new nuclear weaponry, really a better situation? Far better to remove what brings about these killing machines and the instructions to use them.
However Putin rules in the future, the Russian people will continue to suffer from exploitation, poverty, deprivation, early deaths and assorted other troubles—including further dead sailors, soldiers and pilots. They and their weaponry only exist because there is minority ownership and control of manufacturing, utilities, natural resources and the like. What a few possess—and benefit greatly from—they wish to defend, capitalise on and add to through intimidation, and violent force if necessary. Hence, the reason murderous vessels like the Kursk come to be made. So when Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, said “I will strive all my life to look in the eyes of the man who caused this tragedy” (Independent, 23 August), he need only locate and peer into the nearest mirror, for as a military leader acting together with others in maintaining minority possession of productive property, he certainly carries some of the blame.
Because there are groups of these capitalists all over the world, there are groups of armed forces all over the world, and populations are encouraged to see one another as “us” and “them”, or “the enemy”. One day, you have John Spellar, Britain’s armed forces minister, saying that “we” are sending a rescue vehicle to the Barents Sea because Britons “are delighted to be able to assist in trying to save sailors from an awful fate and one that is of concern to all right thinking people all around the world” (Guardian, 17 August). Another day, another year, and “us” and “them” may be unleashing great death and destruction upon each other. Surely it is “of concern to all right thinking people” that we avoid that particular “awful fate”?
So we can, by disempowering all the presidents, the admirals, the generals, the ministers, the tycoons and any other minority who wants ownership and control of resources and people, choosing instead to possess and run these means of living ourselves. No more propertied class. No more leaders. No more us and them. No more Kursks.
The African tourism trade
The tourist industry is increasingly playing a significant role in the economies of many African countries. This is evidenced by the innovative programmes that are, day-in-day-out, being introduced to attract tourists. In Ghana there is what is dubbed PANAFEST (Pan African Festival) and in Gambia the Roots Homecoming Festival is of premium importance. In fact many governments claim that the tourist industry is one of their major if not the main foreign currency earners. Huge sums of money are therefore spent to develop historical and exotic monuments and spots.
It is important to understand that in this part of the world tourism is seen by the authorities to mean Americans and Europeans coming to Africa for a few weeks or months for holidays. The official view of tourism being a mainstay of the economy, however, crumbles in the face of the massive evidence of negative consequences of the industry on the people of Africa. Governments maintain that the tourist industry generates employment for their citizens. But a closer look at the so-called employment opportunities reveals a lot. Many of those considered as employed are tourist guides or “bumpsters”. In most cases these youth are not salaried.
They hang about the hotels and beaches and if lucky they find a tourist who wishes to be shown about town. At the end of the day the “lucky” bumpster gets a tip. There are a few who get employed in the hotels and restaurants as cleaners and cooks. Others more fortunate than the two latter groups, carve and sell artefacts to the tourists. Unfortunately, tourism is a seasonal affair and so during the off-season most of these “employed” youth are unemployed and many resort to petty crime to survive.
Another detrimental effect associated with tourism in Africa but which government officials turn a blind eye to is the introduction of the young ones to “heavy spending”. This particularly affects those living in and around areas of high tourist concentration. In their search for pleasure and heavily loaded with pounds sterling, dollars, marks, etc, they easily entice the youth—male and female alike—to be instruments of sex. They pay generously as the youth fast become spendthrifts. When these partners leave for home the children, used to big spending, resort to petty crime.
It is also known, especially from the high frequency of arrests at local airports, that a good lot of these tourists and tourist agents are drug traffickers. The industry provides a favourable climate for the drug business. Serving as safe havens and transit points these poor African countries, which have elevated tourism to the status of major sponsor of government programmes only expose their youth to hard drugs. Though not originally meant to be consumed here, drugs easily find their way into the local market.
Thus, contrary to what the governments claim, the cumulative adverse effects of the activities of tourists and tourism on the people far outweighs the scanty revenue derived. Having gotten used to “big money”, many youth prefer running after tourists to going to school. There is a growing culture of begging among the people as everyone has mastered the tricks of squeezing “something small” from tourists. Tourist infrastructure—hotels, casinos, restaurants, bars, etc become breeding grounds for prostitution, gambling, drug abuse, petty thievery, etc. These, coupled with the heavy cost of treating people with STDs, the refusal of the youth to attend school, arming the security forces to fight crime, etc certainly indicate that governments lose rather than gain from this type of tourism.
If African governments do not derive as much as they claim, who then does? To answer this question one needs to answer a second, more pertinent question: is tourism today organised for people to enjoy their leisure or is it organised to make profit? If it is organised purposely for people to enjoy, then no tourist would need to pay money to come to Africa, nor would they need to pay for hotel accommodation and food. Therefore one can safely conclude that tourism is organised for the sole aim of making profit.
Tourism is a business venture undertaken by the owners of the means of production—in this case the aircraft, hotels, bars and restaurants, etc. Governments only come in to play their historical role of making sure that the owners of the means of producing the pleasure of tourism reap their profits in a peaceful environment.
Thus this exploitation of the workers and youth of African countries is made possible because they do not own the airlines, hotels, etc-—the means of producing the wealth of tourism. To ensure that such exploitation is halted the means of production must be commonly owned. Now since this system where a few people are able to exclusively possess the means of production is global, destroying it cannot be an African affair. The struggle to do away with the profit system (and make, for instance, the tourist industry benefit everyone) must be fought on two planes. On the one hand it should be an overall struggle encompassing all aspects of life—healthcare, feeding, clothing, education, protecting the environment, tourism, etc. On the other hand such a struggle must involve the concerted action of all workers of the world. There is the need for workers to understand the class struggle; to get actively and consciously involved in it; to persuade others to join in; and with a majority of willing members the struggle will be won.