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Friday, August 24, 2007

Annals of Russian Humiliation: Neo-Soviet Russia Drops Another Sochi-Related Clanger

The Moscow Times reports on how barbaric, chicken-with-the-head-off Russia humiliated itself before the world at a recent air show it attempted to host. Reading this, do you dare to imagine dear reader what will happen when Russia attempts the Olympics, on a far grander scale?

At the opening of the MAKS 2007 air show, half a dozen bewildered delegates from Italian industrial group Finnmeccanica sheepishly boarded a barely marked shuttle bus as the temperature was rising and their patience running thin. As the driver pulled away, he veered as if to head in the opposite direction from the main event. "Please," yelled one of the exasperated Italians, "if he's taking us back to the entrance again, someone just shoot him."

On Wednesday, the second day of the air show, that irritation was palpable from many foreign participants and visitors. While organizers have boasted that MAKS deserves a place in the big league of international air shows, words like "amateur" and "bizarre" were more common in assessments coming from foreigners. The most common complaints ranged from poor transport links and inadequate infrastructure to ponderous security checks, bad food and revolting public toilets.

A number of prominent officials, including Sergei Chemezov, the head of state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, have credited MAKS with climbing into the ranks of major international air shows like France's Le Bourget and Britain's Farnborough. This year's event is the biggest ever, and with almost 800 companies from nearly 40 countries, foreign participation is up by almost 50 percent. The size and scope of the event have been a constant selling point for Russian officials, who have pushed it as a symbol of a resurgent aviation industry. Alexei Fyodorov, head of the newly formed, state-run United Aircraft Corporation, said last week that the country would sell $250 billion worth of military and civilian aircraft over the next 18 years.

But some representatives of foreign firms warn that the list of inconveniences faced by participants could scuttle Russian attempts to sell both itself and its aircraft to Western investors. "It is amateur," said Nathalie Merand, a spokeswoman for Brazilian plane manufacturer Embraer, just as the backlighting at the company's stand failed. "An air show is about business, and this is more like a public holiday. It is very expensive to be here and it is not worth it," Merand said, listing problems from a flooded stand to a lack of overall coordination.

Another Embraer representative, who asked not to be identified, said the company was weighing whether it was interested in returning to the next MAKS event in two years. Complaining about the poor food and arbitrary document checks by police, he said he "did not know whether to throw up or urinate" in the free portable toilets. "All this is a very bizarre contrast to the claims that it is on the same level as Farnborough or Le Bourget," said an official with another foreign firm. "They always claim that this is the best MAKS, but it might actually be the worst."

Anna Abarshalina, head of communications for MAKS 2007, said she was aware of the complaints, but that senior event officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon. The biggest gripe was getting to the site, with some participants saying it had taken up to seven hours to travel the approximately 40 kilometers from Moscow to the Zhukovsky airfield. "They should at least have a separate entrance for the people running the exhibits," EADS spokesman Gregor Von Kursell said. "They shouldn't make them queue up with children and grandmothers and the toilet cleaners."

Temperatures approaching the mid-30s didn't help the moods of exhibitors and industry representatives as they were forced to wait in line. But with the air show an obvious target for a possible terrorist attack, most said some delays were understandable. Francois Roudier, vice president of the Le Bourget air show, described traffic and lines for security checks at the French event as a "nightmare" for organizers there as well. He said MAKS was relatively young at 15; the Le Bourget show is in its 98th year. "Crowd control can always be better," Roudier said by telephone from Paris. "There will be solutions in years to come."

Amanda Stainer, Farnborough International's director of exhibitions and events, said traffic snarls were a problem that organizers of the British show had been forced to address in the past. "We got a working group together and agreed on a plan with the authorities," Stainer said in a telephone interview. "It was a really coordinated effort." Measures that helped improve the traffic situation at Farnborough included limiting thoroughfares on the way to the site to one-way traffic and establishing separate lanes for buses.

Some participants were more positive about the event once inside. Rolls-Royce representative Dave Gould said that even though it took taken him five hours to get from his hotel to his stand, the event went well. "Once you're in here, then it's OK," Gould said. He said MAKS was more on a level with smaller air shows, like one in Beijing, but the rapid expansion in the Russian market meant that it was unlikely foreign businesses would be put off. For some of the participants, MAKS even offered an atmosphere that could not be found elsewhere. "I like this event," Jean Herve, a representative for French company Le Guellec, said jovially as he waited for workmen to sweep water away from his stand after a pipe burst overnight at the Seimens' exhibit, flooding the pavilion. "It is more festive here," Herve said. "Le Bourget is more about business." And with shashlik stands, myriad fast food, souvenir stalls and even a giant hot air balloon in the shape of a can of Baltika beer, the event had the air of a carnival or championship sports event.

As for the problems with logistics, the writing may have already been on the wall last week -- or, perhaps more accurately, inauspiciously falling off. Boris Alyoshin, head of the Federal Industry Agency, which organized the event, offered a preview for journalists Aug. 16. Just as he was extolling the event's virtues, the power cut out, silencing the microphones and plunging the hall into darkness. As journalists stood around in the gloom, two posters for the show came loose from the wall and crashed noisily to the ground.

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