Monday, August 9, 2010

Give Me My Rynda Back!

On Friday we wrote about the current wave of wildfires sweeping across a broad swath of western Russia; within that post was the story about a Russian blogger’s back-and-forth with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the disappearance of his village’s emergency warning bell (or rynda). His complaint was picked up by the independent radio station “Ecko Moskvy” (Moscow Echo) and quickly turned into a national sensation. The website Global Voices Online published this partial transcript of the exchange between the blogger, named "top-lap" and Putin’s response.

In short, top-lap says that under the now much-maligned Communists, his village had three fire ponds (basins used to hold water to be used in case of a wildfire) and his three-village area was served by their own fire truck, which in times of fire was summoned by sounding the rynda. Top-lap goes on to say: “then democrats came and that is when a f…-up started,” adding that the three ponds were filled-in for construction projects, the fire truck disappeared and the faithful rynda was replaced by a telephone that no one ever bothered to hook up. Top-lap claims that fire-fighting efforts have been hindered in his region by this lack of basic equipment – a complaint echoed in other villages around Russia as well. He then launches into a screed about official corruption and neglect for the people, all in the face of ever-rising taxes, before ending with a demand to “give me my f-ing rynda back.” For his part, Putin tried to play off the complaint, saying in a reply posted at Ecko Moskvy that top-lap’s rynda would be returned, and even delivered to top-lap personally by the local governor if top-lap would send along his address.

GVO reports though that top-lap is regretting his post to Putin; both because he now fears he’ll lose his job for speaking up so forcefully, and because his sarcastic demands to “give him his f-ing rynda back,” has become a sort of joke in the Russian blogosphere (see the cartoon below, a fictional exchange between Putin and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich). Perhaps that second part is true, but a visit to his LiveJournal site (LJ is the most popular platform in the Russian blogosphere) shows that top-lap also tapped into a real vein of anger in Russia over the government’s handling of the wildfire outbreak; the vast majority of comments on top-lap’s site supported him in his speaking out over the rynda and the wildfire situation in general. And that circles back to my question on Friday, wondering if the 2010 wildfires will prove to be to Vladimir Putin what Hurricane Katrina was to George W. Bush?

Since coming to power a decade ago, Putin has shown a remarkable – one might say, Reaganesque – ability to not be dragged down by disastrous events that occur on his watch: the sinking of the submarine Kursk, the second Chechen War and a spate of terrorist attacks that included high-profile massacres in Moscow and at an elementary school in Beslan in 2004; none ever seemed to have a lasting impact on Putin’s personal popularity, even when official incompetence or neglect was shown to be at least a partial cause of some of these calamities. But with this summer’s wildfires, there seems to be a different attitude at-play among Russians. For the past decade there has been a largely unspoken (except for a handful of liberal political dissidents) deal in place between the government and the people: the democratic life of the country would be restricted – a system Putin refers to as “managed democracy” – in exchange for peace and economic stability for the people. To see why the Russian people would agree to such a bargain, one only has to look back to the economic chaos that followed the end of the Soviet Union; seemingly overnight, people’s meager personal fortunes, along with guarantees of lifetime employment, were wiped away. The liberal, democratic reformers bore the brunt of the people’s anger; a large part of the reason why the Russian Left is a largely irrelevant in terms of political power and why Putin’s managed democracy managed to take hold in Russia in the 2000s. But the other side of that deal is a government that provides a secure life for the people. Perhaps it the chocking smog, along with stifling temperatures, that have gripped Moscow for the past week; but patience with the governing elite seems to be wearing thin. Eurasia Review published this story today, where three Russian academics lay the blame for the out-of-control wildfires firmly at the feet of Putin and his 2007 Forest Law that shifted responsibility for preventing and combating forest fires from the government to the private sector. While the government maintained an expensive, but effective, fire-fighting apparatus, the private sector has failed miserably, and now Russia’s Emergency Ministry seems to be compounding that failure to bring the fires under control.

“Abramovich? Hello! Listen, do you have a rynda on your yacht? See, the thing is… You have to return it.” (Cartoon via LiveJournal, translation via Global Voices Online).
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