MOSCOW — The floodwaters that brought catastrophe to residents of southern Russia over the weekend — killing at least 171 and destroying up to 9,000 homes — began taking a political toll Monday when two local officials were fired, apparently to prevent the blame from reaching the governor or even the president.
They lost their jobs as grieving survivors of the flash flood in the Krasnodar region accused higher-ups of diverting reservoir water their way to protect palatial residences built for the local governor and, ostensibly, for President Vladimir Putin, an assertion the Kremlin has denied.
“I don’t believe it,” said Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition parliament member from the A Just Russia party who flew to Krasnodar to help organize relief efforts. “But that is a popular explanation here.”
Ponomaryov said he did believe that there were far more deaths than officially reported. “There is no central registry of the dead,” he said. “Bodies are being taken to different jurisdictions. We’ll probably never really know how many died.”
Bitter experience has left Russians inclined to doubt their leaders when calamity strikes. In 1986, it took Soviet officials two days to begin to admit that a nuclear accident had occurred at Chernobyl, in Ukraine. In 2000, when the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine sank, Russia at first described minor technical difficulties, then refused offers of help. All 118 on board died; evidence suggested that at least some had survived the initial explosion, despite assertions to the contrary.
Last September, a plane carrying Yaroslavl’s Lokomotiv hockey team crashed as it took off, killing all but one on board. Residents asserted that it went down because Moscow officials were holding an economic forum in the city and were hurrying to clear runways for visiting dignitaries.
In December, Yaroslavl citizens voted overwhelmingly against the ruling United Russia party in parliamentary elections, and in April the city elected as mayor an opposition candidate who had resigned from United Russia immediately after the crash.
In Krasnodar, Gov. Alexander Tkachev told residents of the hard-hit town of Krymsk on Sunday that it had been impossible to issue an alert early Saturday.
“An official warning was released at 10 p.m. on Friday that heavy rains were coming and that the rivers could break their banks,” he said at a public meeting Sunday, according to the Interfax news agency. “The flooding was at its highest point between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Do you think, my dear friends, we could have visited all homes in this time span? No, it was impossible. With what forces? This is one thing. Then, are you sure you would have left your homes immediately?”
On Monday, he fired the mayor of Krymsk and the head of the regional administration, saying they had failed to issue flood warnings. And though scientists said the floods occurred because of torrents of rain falling on saturated ground, residents suspected water from a reservoir had been released in their direction to prevent a break that would have inundated Tkachev’s house, among others.
Officials took a few residents on a helicopter tour Sunday. Those witnesses saw no break in the reservoir and decided they had been flown to the wrong spot. “I believe they took us where it was convenient for them” Pavel Sorokopud told reporters.
Tkachev’s job appears safe — his territory includes Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held. “Putin will be reluctant to make any changes,” Ponomaryov said. Tkachev, governor since 2000, was reappointed in March to another term.
Although Russians have held anti-Putin protests in recent months and demonstrated against rigged elections and widespread corruption, a recent poll found Putin has a 60 percent approval rating.
Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, the independent agency that conducted the poll, said in an interview Monday that Putin remains popular because in the 12 years since he came to power, Russians’ living standards have improved.
“There is a crisis of trust in local authorities, but that doesn’t mean it extends toward federal authorities,” he said. “This will depend on how efficient the federal government will be in overcoming the consequences of the tragedy.”
Those judgments will be made while watching television, Grazhdankin said. Monday’s broadcasts showed many damaged homes and suffering people, with ample shots of government help being administered.
Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist who has visited Krasnodar to help residents protest the governor’s appropriation of a public forest for his dacha, is among the opposition leaders who have helped organize volunteers and supplies for the flood victims. She said the many offers of help from ordinary people, once accustomed to letting government do everything, speak to a changing society.
“The response was so great,” she said. “This is civil society in action. This is new. Under Putin, people learned to steal. Now they are learning new values.”