Friday, August 6, 2010

Putin's Katrina?

Wildfires are continuing to rage across Russia, with more than 600 reported to be burning as of Thursday; killing at least 50 and destroying hundreds of homes - in some cases entire villages - in the process. And it seems the only thing rising faster in Russia than the temperatures are the tempers of people in the affected regions. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has assumed personal control over the fire-fighting and recovery efforts, a sign some in the Western media say is an indication that he intends to run for president again in 2012, supplanting the current president, Dmitry Medvedev (though in reality domestic affairs are the responsibility of the PM, so it is natural that he would take the lead on a national emergency such as this).

But Putin’s hands-on approach in this case could backfire on him. Residents in many small villages across western Russia are complaining that their towns were doomed by official incompetence – reports have come in from the provinces of broken-down fire-fighting equipment, fire prevention measures (like retention ponds for water) that were dismantled and never replaced, and of fire-fighters who simply disappeared once the flames showed up. One blogger, whose comments were rebroadcast by Echo Moscow radio (one of the few truly independent media outlets left in the capital), complained that the town’s emergency warning bell had been taken down and never replaced; Putin said the government would replace the bell and that they would even deliver it to the blogger’s home if he would kindly supply his address (take that how you will…).

The Moscow Times, in a scathing report, explains that much of Russia’s poor response to the outbreak of wildfires could be because of a law passed in 2007 called the Forest Code that shifted responsibility for fighting forest fires from the government to major corporations who were commercially-engaged in the region. At the time of the law’s passing, even members of Putin’s own United Russia party, usually known for their compliance with the Boss’ wishes, voiced their concern that the new law could have disastrous results – if the corporations didn’t properly invest in fire-prevention efforts, the result could be catastrophic. The reports filtering in from the affected regions seem to bear out these concerns.

One of the oligarchs reaping a fortune from Russia’s forests is Oleg Deripaska, who owns some of the country’s largest paper mills. You might remember him as the oligarch Putin publicly dressed down last year for shutting off the heating supply to a factory town north of Moscow. In that case, Deripaska decided to shutter the town’s last remaining factory – a plant that also supplied the town with heat as well as being the main employer for the region. An angry Putin scolded Deripaska on national TV for his business practices, before throwing him a pre-printed order to reopen the plant, along with the pen to sign it. We’ll see if Putin decides to use Deripaska as his whipping boy again to deflect some of the public’s anger over the wildfires, though a sacrificial oligarch might not be enough this time. In an effort to seem engaged in the crisis and responsive to the needs of the people, Putin pledged that at least one of the affected villages would be rebuilt by this winter, which in that latitude starts about two months from now. Doubling-down on his pledge, Putin also said he would have webcams installed in the village so people all across Russia could watch the rebuilding progress via the Internet. And that may be a boast too far; if the village isn’t rebuilt on schedule it will reflect badly on Putin’s image as a “man of action”, while if the webcams aren’t installed, or suddenly “malfunction” this could work to erode some of his credibility. Putin remains very popular among Russians and is well-regarded, even when much of the rest of government is not; but you have to wonder if the wildfires of August could turn into Putin’s Katrina.
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