Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, providing millions of Soviets with a rare view of bitter discord inside the Kremlin, attacked the Foreign Ministry's handling of earthquake relief efforts Friday on national prime-time television.
In an unusually sharp criticism, Ryzhkov, the formal head of the government under President Mikhail Gorbachev, said the Foreign Ministry failed to give enough assistance to relief crews that rushed to Soviet Armenia after a devastating quake Dec. 7 in the southern republic.Within three days of the 30-second quake that killed 55,000 people and left a half-million residents homeless in northern Armenia, relief teams from the United States and other Western countries flew to the stricken area as part of a massive aid campaign on a scale unprecedented since World War II. At least 67 nations have sent emergency supplies to the Soviet Union.
Ryzhkov vented his wrath in a remarkable exchange from the Armenian capital of Yerevan with an unidentified Foreign Ministry official on Vremya, or Time, state-run Soviet television's nightly news program, watched by tens of millions of people each day.
"When did you come here?" Ryzhkov asked the official as the cameras rolled at a meeting of a special Politburo commission coordinating relief efforts from Yerevan.
"On Monday (Dec. 12)," the official responded.
"And when did the foreign rescuers come?"
"They came earlier, on the third day (after the quake, Dec. 9)."
When Ryzhkov asked, "So why did you get here only on Monday?" the official did not directly answer the question, saying only: "Nikiforov from theministry discussed the situation, and the decision was to send a group here."
Ryzhkov, who heads the special Politburo panel, then snapped: "If you cannot organize the work, phone Nikiforov and tell him that the situation here is too complicated for you and that you cannot cope."
At one point, in a remark that was not directed at the official but was audible on television, Ryzhkov flatly said: "We are displeased with the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
The prime minister apparently was attacking Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Nikoforov, the bespectacled official who kept Western reporters informed of developments in the days after the quake.
"Instead of organizing briefings and giving some mythical (casualty) figures (to Western reporters), you should have come here earlier and organized the work here," Ryzhkov scolded the Foreign Ministry official.
For several days after the quake, central government officials said they could not provide an accurate death toll, as various regional authorities in Armenia and Western diplomats in Moscow gave widely varying figures that ranged as high as 100,000.
"Why was the Foreign Ministry late in sending specialists here?" the relentless Ryzhkov asked the official. "Didn't they understand the situation here, that we could not give attention to the foreign teams who are working here?"
As the Soviets gave up hope of finding more survivors beneath tons of rubble nine days after the disaster, a rescue team from the U.S. Agency for International Development planned to return home Friday amid withdrawal by other foreign relief crews who were told that their services were no longer needed.
"Nobody talked to them, there were no translators, no communication," Ryzhkov said of the departing relief teams. "You should have organized that long ago. You have hundreds of interpreters in Moscow."
Ryzhkov, who said only three Foreign Ministry staff members and just 15 translators were sent to Armenia, said he and Gorbachev could not find an interpreter to communicate with a French rescue crew during a visit to Spitak, the Armenian town of 30,000 near the epicenter that was destroyed by the quake.
AID official Julia Taft was nearly in tears Thursday when she told reporters that her rescue crew could do little more to help the Soviets.