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Analysis & Opinion
13.08.10 Will The Russian Forest Fires Burn The Russian Government?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Alexandre Strokanov

With hundreds of forest and peat bog fires in central Russia raging out of control, a third of the nation’s agricultural output destroyed by a severe drought, and Moscow choking in thick smog, the country is in the midst of a national disaster. The overall number of forest and peat bog fires in Russia in the summer of 2010 has reached over 26,500. The fires have killed more than 50 people so far, and thousands have lost their homes. This disaster follows the hottest summer in Russia in 130 years. Temperatures have hovered around 35 degrees Celsius for weeks. Will Medvedev and Putin pay a serious political price for mishandling the wildfire disaster? Will the Russian people demand more accountability from their rulers?

The authorities, both regional and federal, are finding themselves under heavy criticism for mishandling the situation and failing to prepare adequately for a disaster that was largely preventable.

During Vladimir Putin's presidency, the forestry service was practically dismantled. The 70,000 forest rangers who might have registered the fires and even been able to put them out were all dismissed.

There are only 22,000 professional firefighters in the whole of Russia, compared to more than 27,000 in Germany. There is no system of volunteer firefighters, as in the United States or Germany, consisting of millions of ordinary people. Russia's firefighting vehicles and equipment are often outdated. Many people in Russia's provinces have had to defend their villages and homes with their bare hands.

The Russian people are understandably angry at their government. It was slow to recognize the magnitude of the disaster, and was even slower to marshal an adequate response, activating the military, for example, only after several villages and even a naval aviation depot near Moscow were destroyed by the forest fires. The Russian Internet is full of angry reporting on the authorities’ dismal failure to respond to wildfires and protect the people and their property.

To add insult to injury, President Dmitry Medvedev, in perhaps the most awkward of political timings, headed off for a seaside holiday in Sochi at a time when Moscow and many Russian regions were choking in smoke. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has traveled to the affected regions, met with the victims and ordered governors to speed up compensation payments and start rebuilding homes, once again giving the impression that it is he who is indeed running the country.

In fact, many observers detected signs that Putin was using the fire disaster to launch his reelection campaign, beating Medvedev at his own game when he personally responded to an angry post by a Russian blogger who had criticized the government’s handling of the wildfires raging in central Russia.

Will Medvedev and Putin pay a serious political price for mishandling the wildfire disaster? Similar wildfires in Greece two years ago brought down the Greek conservative government. Could something similar happen in Russia, at least on the regional level? Will the “tandemocracy” be shaken as a result of this terrible situation? Will the Russian people demand more accountability from their rulers? Why was the Russian government so poorly prepared to handle a natural disaster that was both predictable and preventable? Is this a failure of policy or failed politics? Is this the direct result of the excessive centralization of power under Putin and Medvedev, better known as the “power vertical?” How can decentralization help rectify the situation?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

Let’s begin with the statement that this natural disaster was both predictable and preventable. I, personally, never saw any prediction that Moscow may have temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, or in the upper 90s in Fahrenheit, lasting for over six weeks. That is why the statement of predictability is not correct or valid, if we do not follow the story that this heat wave was caused by the United States’ testing new weather related weapons, which I personally do not take seriously. Although we are enjoying one of the best summers for my garden here in Vermont.

Were the forest fires, destruction of several villages and the loss of lives in these circumstances preventable? Probably, but such statements should be based on facts and specific investigations, rather than on emotions expressed by the “Russian blogosphere.” Most likely some cases were preventable, but others were not; anybody who is even slightly familiar with natural firestorms will tell you this. Nature is still stronger than human effort, despite our technological advancements. We are reminded of this every year in many parts of the world, from regular fires in California to this year’s catastrophic floods in Pakistan.

Considering the situation that Russia is going through at this point, and the fact that this heat wave is the worst in 130 years, or in all of recorded meteorological history, the reaction of the federal government may be called quite adequate. Another story is that the government and the responsible agencies were not completely prepared for a crisis of such proportions and corruption is certainly still there – unfortunately it has not burned down in these fires.

However, the centralization of power in Russia helps to keep the situation under at least some measure of control. Just imagine for a moment that the country did not have the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES) and fire protection was mainly left to the regional and municipal bodies, as it is in many countries around the world, including the United States. In the United States those “millions of ordinary people” at firefighting stations are paid for by my real estate taxes – the amount would scare any Russian taxpayer! And, even more importantly, firefighters in my town have equipment (three engines and one tower for a town of more than 7,000 people) and training to stop house fires, but not hundreds of acres of forests or an entire village. What would be the situation with the fires in Russia now if the MES did not exist and “de-centralization” was already implemented? In my opinion, it would be worse. However, it is worthwhile remembering that the MES and its head Sergey Shoigu are among the most privileged governmental agencies and officials in modern Russia, but their recent performance has not been the best and exposed many shortcomings.

The current actions of the Russian government are unique in many ways. For example, recall the decision that the federal government and the regional budgets will pay to rebuild houses lost to forest fires. I want to stress that these are federal and regional budgets that will pay the victims of the fires, not just insurance agencies, since many houses were obviously not properly insured. Impressively, Putin promised victims that their homes will be rebuilt by the end of October. Of course, only time will show whether this promise will be kept, but those who are interested in how the U.S. government handled the hurricane Katrina disaster and provided assistance to its victims may find many stories on the Internet.

Natural disasters are terrible things, but they are good tests of governmental efficiency, as well as personal qualities necessary for leadership. In regard to the “tandemocracy” the situation with forest fires and the behavior of Russia’s leaders were further proof that president Medvedev, without somebody “like Putin,” is not completely ready to be at the top alone. He certainly made a serious lapse in judgment deciding to go to Sochi at the time of a national disaster of such magnitude. I doubt that anybody may legitimately criticize Putin’s actions here.

The consequences of these fires for Russian politics will be pretty limited and certainly will not affect the top level seriously. Some replacements on the provincial or municipal level are quite possible, due to the fact that the crisis made many things more obvious and clear.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

It is undeniable that incompetence and corruption have produced the conditions that have made the present catastrophe underway in Russia possible. To insist on the contrary is simply not credible. This is not a situation for crisis management; the authorities in Moscow simply do not have the necessary resources and skilled personnel to deploy which might, at this late stage, offset the impact of years of faulty policies. Granted, Russia is experiencing an unusually dry and hot summer.

For comparative purposes, please recall that over 40,000 mostly elderly persons died of dehydration in Europe during an extreme heat wave in the summer of 2003, as a result of the absence of air conditioning in many flats. Numerous governmental bodies in the relevant countries neglected to respond promptly to the crisis.

In Russia today it is an easier task to assign blame. For many years, the Russian central government operated in an inefficient and largely dysfunctional manner, yet little was done to correct the situation since the political leadership’s interests lay elsewhere. As a result, the Russian government is incapable of providing quality and many essential services to the population. Unfortunately, the central authorities cannot turn to effective regional governments or to a private sector that could offer needed personnel and equipment for meaningful assistance.

It seems to me that the situation is not dissimilar to the Chernobyl tragedy, which many people say gave rise to glasnost, setting in motion forces that ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s break-up after the unsuccessful August 1991 putsch. Chernobyl had long-term domestic and foreign consequences.

While Australia (almost the entire country) and the United States (e.g. California) are not perfect in this regard, the damage large fires have caused in both countries is dwarfed in comparison with what is occurring in Russia. In theory, Russia is a federated state, as are both Australia and the United States. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership fears decentralization, since it could begin an undesired evolutionary process that could lead to the appearance of genuine political figures in the country’s regions.

From the standpoint of the current political elite, in the worst case this could lead to the devolution of the Russian state. It is a situation that cannot be ignored or resolved through a combination of repression and tightly controlling the discussion of policy issues. It could very well lead to the emergence of a genuine political system where regional interests will make demands upon the authorities in Moscow.

Last week, some of Russia’s leading human rights activists established the Human Rights Council of Russia, to improve coordination among themselves and strengthen ties to opposition political parties, including regional groups. This development might be interpreted as the exhaustion of patience with the hope that president Medvedev could bring genuine change to Russia, that an evolution of the current system is possible.

In recent history there were two cases when residents of Moscow witnessed smoke in the sky. Moscow was burnt to the ground by Napoleon, but the autocracy did not collapse. The city was on the verge of capture during the Great Patriotic War, only to be saved by the determination of the Soviet people and its armed forces, and the regime survived. It will not be clear for quite some time whether these chapters of the city’s history will be repeated.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Wildfires are a scourge of many countries in the summertime, and Russia is no exception. Major fires devastate California every year, burning forests and fields, towns and homes, killing people and destroying property. Everywhere, government response to fighting fires is never considered adequate, in particular by those who lost their homes or even loved ones to fire; and also by those who for political reasons seek any flaw, however contrived, in a government they might envy or abhor.

Every summer many fires are started in Russia by obtusely negligent residents of villages, who clear dry grass near their homes by setting it on fire – despite all visible experience, warnings, admonitions and rather feeble punishments. How many fires this time were started by human stupidity is anyone’s guess.

One legacy of the 70 years of the Soviet regime is a continuing passivity of very many people in Russia and their tendency to take no initiative, at least initially. Another legacy is the readiness to blame the central government for everything that happens – not surprising in a system organized by Vladimir Lenin to control even minute local details from the center. Because of the annual spectacle of human-caused fires, it is possible that the first few days of what became a widespread disaster, the potential gravity of the situation was underestimated. One should also consider another pernicious Soviet legacy: fear of passing bad news up the hierarchy (this is not exclusively a Soviet trait, but it was very pronounced in the Soviet Union and caused that country many very significant and varied damages).

Overall the scale of the wildfire disaster in Russia – although very photogenic and spectacular – with its 3,000 displaced persons, fewer than 1,000 burned houses and no large population center seriously harmed, pales in comparison with the contemporaneous floods in Pakistan: 14 million affected and 500,000 displaced. On the scale of Russia as a whole the wildfires are very important, but not even close to being overwhelming. Moscow’s problem with the cloud of smoke affecting the lives of millions is a problem comparable with the extensive atmospheric heating episode, which echoes similar heat waves in other parts of Europe and demonstrates how powerless humanity is when facing nature’s wrath.

One should suppose that only the insane in Russia would blame their government for natural effects like the heat wave. Does Russia’s government (or any government for that matter) owe its society a swift resolution to a problem, which has not appeared in recorded history? No doubt Russia has its share of lunatics, but one must smile at the suggestion that these exotic perceptions will cause political change.

It seems that there is, however, a category of dreamers who are feverishly (if one may pun) seeking some reason, any reason, any motive to hope for a “regime change” in Russia, by social upheaval if necessary. These dreamers are not aware of the determining social dynamics in societies undergoing rapid change, of which Russia is one. At this stage, Russia has already traversed the turbulence of transiting from Soviet stasis to change, and is now in a steady-deployment phase. In this modality, change will be implemented by the contingent that established its social authority at the end of the turbulent transition phase. The analogy in U.S. history is the period of national growth that followed the turbulent transition of 1776 to 1787. For Russia, the comparable timeframe is 1986 to 1999. The present phase of Russia’s deployment will continue for decades.

The wildfires and their eventual suppression will more likely result in the growth of social cohesion and political solidarity, to the advantage of Russia’s present government.
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