A senior regional official in Siberia has doubled down on suggestions that a demonstration over a deadly shopping-mall fire that killed dozens of children was a political provocation aimed at undermining authorities.
The remarks made by Vladimir Chernov, first deputy governor of Russia’s Kemerovo region, on March 28 came a day after thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city of Kemerovo to demand answers and accountability for the March 25 fire there that killed 64 people, including dozens of children.
"We are concluding that this was a clearly orchestrated event aimed at discrediting authorities," Chernov, the Kemerovo region's first deputy governor, told Russian news agencies.
He added that there were "a lot of intoxicated" youth at the demonstration and that the crowd included people "who had no idea what they were doing there."
The regional administration, led by Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, has come under fierce public pressure over the tragedy and its response.
Demonstrators at the March 27 gathering called for the regional leadership to be fired, an unusual display of public frustration with authorities in a region where President Vladimir Putin secured 85 percent of the vote in his reelection less than two weeks ago.
During the demonstration, Kemerovo Deputy Governor Sergei Tsivilyov suggested that a man who lost his sister, wife, and three children in the fire was engaging in self-promotion.
Tuleyev was widely scorned for telling Putin during a meeting the same day that the demonstrators "are not relatives of the dead, but constant troublemakers," and that only around 200 demonstrators had gathered in Kemerovo.
He told a stone-faced Putin, who has tightened restrictions on public gatherings in what critics call an effort to stymie dissent, that "opposition forces" were stoking tensions for political gain.
Chernov, who attended the demonstration, told reporters on March 28 that around 25 to 30 percent of the crowd was made up of people "who came to offer their sympathy," the Interfax news agency reported.
He also appeared to contradict Tuleyev's claim to Putin that only 200 demonstrators showed up. Chernov said that when the crowd was asked who among them were relatives of victims, "nearly 500 people raised their hands. That tells you something," Interfax reported.
The press office of the Kemerovo regional government did not respond to an e-mailed inquiry on Chernov’s remarks, including who might have "orchestrated" the demonstration in an alleged effort to "discredit" authorities.
A spokeswoman for the administration, Svetlana Kharitonova, told RFE/RL by telephone that she could not comment because the interview Chernov gave to Russian media was not organized by the regional government’s press office.
Tuleyev, meanwhile, released a video address on March 28 in which he accuses "certain forces" of trying to stoke tensions in the aftermath of the fire -- a nebulous phrase Putin himself has previously used to refer to those purportedly seeking to harm Russia’s interests:
Tuleyev cited incidents of alleged false bomb threats called into mining facilities in the region, and the case of a Ukrainian man who posted a YouTube video claiming -- without evidence -- that 300 people were killed in the fire. Russian investigators have opened a hate-speech case against the man.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on March 28 declined to comment on the public remarks by Tuleyev and his deputies in the days following the deadly fire.
"I’m not going to do that," Peskov was quoted by Russian media outlets as saying.
Putin has long resisted making personnel moves in response to grassroots pressure, says Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the Paris-based think tank R.Politik. "He never concedes," she notes.
But even before the fire, Russian media reports had suggested that the Kremlin was planning to replace Tuleyev, 73, who has suffered problems with his health over the past year.
One person who had been cited as a possible successor was Tsivilyov, the deputy governor who suggested the man who lost his sister, wife, and children in the fire was engaging in self-promotion.
Tuleyev had also faced criticism for saying during his March 27 meeting with Putin that he "personally" apologizes to the Russian president, while many felt he should have first apologized to the victims of the fire and their relatives.
A senior Russian lawmaker also drew condemnation for remarks on a Russian political talk show broadcast on March 27 in which she offered her "condolences" and "support to our leader," saying the Kemerovo fire was a "stab in the back" for Putin.
The lawmaker, Yelena Mizulina, also told Kemerovo residents and all Russians during the program that they can "prove that you're all on one team" and urged them not to "give into provocations" or discuss "rumors and all kinds of nasty things."