With the number of dead from last weekend’s floods in southern Russia expected to rise as rescue workers continue searching for more victims, officials are tripping over themselves to allocate blame elsewhere.
No one has played that old game better than President Vladimir Putin, who has often appeared more like a pundit commenting on the deplorable state of the country’s infrastructure than the longtime leader who regularly promises to rebuild it. However, Russia’s latest natural disaster is also the first to have taken place since mass protests shook his rule last December, and it’s not clear how he will emerge from the crisis this time.
Although the floods were caused by the fall of a third of the average annual rainfall in some areas, residents suspect the damage was made worse by local officials who decided to open the gates of a nearby reservoir to allow water to run off. They cite that as the most compelling explanation for the severity of floods that carried away houses and cars and killed at least 171 people.
Whatever the truth, the disaster has raised memories of officials’ stunning mishandling of forest fires that raged across the country last year, when local volunteers used social media to organize themselves to battle the blazes.
Putin, who flew to the worst hit town of Krymsk on Saturday and declared Monday a national day of mourning, thundered at local officials for not having done enough to warn residents of the impending disaster. He promised a full investigation.
He’s an old hand at that, having made a career of appearing to hold no responsibility for the failings of the vast bureaucratic machine he has overseen for a dozen years: appearing on national television to dress down relevant ministers and local authorities has enabled him to appear to be on the side of outraged ordinary people.
Others take their cue. The emergencies minister, Vladimir Puchkov, was also quick to deflect blame this time, pointing his finger at “local leaders and various services.” And the regional leader, Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Tkachev, blamed the reservoir rumors on “provocateurs.”
Whether the disaster will further harm Putin’s sagging popularity remains to be seen. The typical Russian acceptance of natural and man-made disasters is usually ascribed to a fatalism that runs deep in the country’s national culture. However, the authorities’ actions are giving ordinary Russians who normally say they aren’t interested in politics more reason to question their actions.
Opposition groups that are trying to capitalize on the authorities’ failings are now competing with pro-Kremlin youth groups to deliver food and other aid to the victims in what appears to be a new kind of proxy battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians.