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In the Russian wildfires, will Putin get burned?

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By Lilia Shevtsova and David J. Kramer
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Russians fainting in the subway. People jumping into city pools and the Moscow River, and in many cases drowning. Ambulances racing around a city eerily free of its normal traffic congestion. Morgues running out of space and corpses piling up on the floor. Hundreds of homeless animals dying of thirst. Muscovites trying to escape but getting stuck at airports that are scrambling to handle some 64,000 flights canceled or badly delayed because of poor visibility. Staff at foreign embassies fleeing. A voice on the radio warning: "Surgical masks do not help. The monoxide gas and the burning substances will stay in your lungs forever!"

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These seem like scenes from a horror movie, but they are all too real. Between hundreds of wildfires in Russia and record-breaking heat, this has been the worst summer in Russian memory. Nearly 100 deaths are officially attributed to the fires so far (the real figure is undoubtedly much higher), and officials report that the death rate in Moscow has doubled from its customary levels, to 700 per day, owing to heat-induced illness and smoke-filled air. Thousands of homes and dachas have been destroyed, with direct losses estimated at $15 billion and rising.

The fires started a month ago, but Russia's leaders were slow to grasp the gravity of the situation and slower to respond. As his country burned, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on vacation in the resort town of Sochi -- and then, inexplicably, headed off to the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia to mark the two-year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war.

Despite the dire situation in the capital, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov departed for his own holiday, in the Alps, returning only grudgingly. The state forestry agency's Moscow director was fired for refusing to cut short his own vacation, while Medvedev, in a striking display of hypocrisy, threatened to dismiss other forestry officials who remained on leave.

This response has been so appalling in its ineptitude that it invites comparisons to past disasters. Is this like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster? Or is it more like Hurricane Katrina in 2005? Politically speaking, it should be even worse than Katrina. For one thing, a good part of Russia's catastrophe has unfolded in the nation's capital, not in a far-off region such as the Gulf Coast. And these fires are burning with Russia's 2012 presidential elections on the horizon; Katrina hit after George W. Bush had been reelected.

The current crisis should expose and discredit the Russian government at its most incompetent and should permanently taint those in charge. Of course, this doesn't mean it will: Russia's government is not a government of the people, but of the well-connected. Its citizens haven't expected much of their leaders, even before the fires.

But if the events of the past month haven't started a political conflagration, they do seem to be fanning a long-smoldering public distrust of the government. And fires can be unpredictable.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin bears direct responsibility for the dysfunctional system that set the stage for disaster: Legislation that came into effect in 2007, when he was president, turned forest management over to poorly equipped local authorities and to companies that manufacture paper and related products. Oligarchs close to the Kremlin allegedly lobbied for the law, which decimated the forest ranger corps and left Russia ill-prepared for today's calamity.

But Putin's political survival skills are formidable, and writing his political obituary would be premature. More than anyone in the top leadership, he has been meeting with affected families and directing emergency operations. In a blatant PR stunt Tuesday, he even co-piloted a firefighting plane in the Ryazan region, site of some of the worst fires.

And while elections are coming up, voters are unlikely to have much choice when they go to the polls, given the absence of viable political alternatives. Russia doesn't have a remotely functioning democracy; it lacks official accountability, independent institutions and a vigorous media. Opposition leaders and other critics of the government are endlessly harassed by the authorities. Elections for governors were eliminated in 2004 and replaced by a corrupt appointment system, and the same is starting to occur at the mayoral level.

Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that firemen in some regions, ordered to protect the local bosses' dachas, watched helplessly as the homes of ordinary people were reduced to ashes. And it is no wonder that, despite the raging fires, officials have in recent weeks managed to find the personnel and resources to crack down on ongoing protests against cutting down part of the Khimki forest on the outskirts of Moscow, innocuous opposition rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a protest this past Thursday against the AWOL mayor of Moscow.

The poor response to the fires will further widen the chasm separating the nation's authorities from society. Even before Russia began burning, 82 percent of citizens surveyed by the state-run VTsIOM polling agency said state officials do not respect the law. Recent Levada Center polls report that 59 percent of Russians want a return to direct elections for governors, 56 percent are "unsatisfied with what is happening in the country" and 43 percent do not expect "anything positive" from Putin.

Surveys taken after the fires started show public support for Putin and Medvedev, declining even before this crisis, continuing to erode. Medvedev's seeming indifference to the fires is likely to damage his standing further. His much-vaunted plans to modernize his country and build a Russian answer to Silicon Valley look deeply misguided, given that the state apparently cannot even protect its population from the elements. The image of a Russian government unable to put out a fire is likely to prove indelible.

And while the fires may not be Putin's version of Katrina, even he will emerge from the smoke having suffered the sort of pushback he rarely encounters. At a meeting he recently attended in the Nizhny Novgorod region, desperate citizens shouted at him: "The authorities should be hanged by their balls!" Russian bloggers have taken him to task for his flying stunt. Increasingly, the authorities and society resemble two galaxies moving in opposite directions.

A decade ago this past Thursday, a different tragedy befell Russia with the sinking of the Kursk submarine and the loss of 118 Russian sailors. The government at the time, led by its new president, Putin, was blasted for a tardy and feckless response. When, soon afterward, CNN's Larry King asked Putin about the loss of the Kursk, the Russian leader replied callously: "It sank."

Today, were Putin to be interviewed by King about the Russian fires, he might not get away with saying simply: "Russia burned down."

Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, and David J. Kramer is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.


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