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The Fire This Time?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin taking part in fighting wildfires in Ryazan Region aboard a BE 200 amphibious aircraft.
It was pokazukha on steroids.

In one of his trademark stunts, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into the cockpit of a firefighting plane and helped the crew dump water on wildfires plaguing western Russia.

"Is it ok?" he asked after pushing a button to release the water as the television cameras rolled.

"It was a direct hit," the pilot responded.

The same cannot be said for the government's overall response to the ongoing crisis. After reacting slowly to the raging fires, Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have been going to great lengths to show that they are on the case and the situation is under control.

Last week, Russian television broadcast a telephone conversation between Medvedev, sitting in his Kremlin office, and Putin, in shirtsleeves on the scene of forest fires in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, discussing which measures need to be taken.

Putin and Co. have been pulling pr stunts like this for so long that it must be like second nature to them. But all the carefully stage crafted set pieces in the world cannot obscure the fact that the Kremlin was caught flat footed by the fires of August.

A more telling video, that did not make its way on to state-controlled television (but which has been burning up the Internet) shows Putin being accosted by furious residents of from Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village destroyed by the fires.

As Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center points out in today's "Moscow Times," the authoritarian top-down administrative system Putin has built over the past decade is ill equipped to handle emergencies that require a fast and nimble response:

What lessons can Russia learn from this summer’s fires and the government’s reactions to them? First, the country needs to improve techniques for putting out fires. Second, it needs to re-examine the Forest Code and whether the number of firefighters is sufficient for a country that has the world’s largest forest reserves. Third and most important, it needs to address the problem of the country’s overly centralized and highly ineffective government institutions.

But it goes even deeper than that.

As RFE/RL correspondents Anastasia Kirilenko and Daisy Sindelar show in a recent story, Putin's decision in 2007 to gut the Forestry Service -- slashing the number of rangers and increasing the number of bureaucrats -- left the authorities woefully ill equipped to deal with the fires.

The 2007 Forestry Code, which Putin signed into law as president and which critics say heavily favors the timber industry, also took responsibility for protecting Russia's forests away from the federal authorities and gave it to ill-prepared regional and local governments. The code was supported by the timber industry and real estate developers, but was reviled by environmentalists.

The results of that policy are now laid bare for all the world to see.

A series of public opinion polls conducted in July and released this week showed that even before the fires, both Medvedev and Putin were losing standing with the public. Medvedev's rating, for example, has dropped by as many as 10 percentage points since the start of the year, while Putin's has fallen by up to 6 percentage points. Analysts say both can expect to lose more popularity as a result of the fires.

Sometimes a crisis like this is cathartic, sparking and focusing the kind of public outrage that forces a government to rethink its policies and priorities. But then again, sometimes it isn't.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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