The political and social roots of Russia’s wildfire disaster

Published on WSWS, by Andrea Peters, 21 August 2010.

A cold wave hitting central Russia has finally provided relief to millions of Moscow residents who have been living in suffocating heat and smog for weeks. While the wildfires that turned the air in the nation’s capital into a toxic haze have reportedly been brought under control, numerous blazes continue to burn in other areas, in particular Siberia and the Far East … //

… The lesson that the ruling elite is drawing from these events is that it is necessary to further consolidate its grip on power in order to prevent similar crises in the future from sparking a challenge to its authority. In an August 11 article published in the government newspaper Rossiskaia Gazeta and entitled “Lessons of a Hot Summer,” Nikolai Zlobin warns that the Russian state must consider the national security implications of the wildfire disaster. 

“Today [national security] threats frequently lie in spheres far removed from the purely military. When such threats are unexpectedly exacerbated the state and its citizens become vulnerable and defenseless and the situation threatens to get out of control, to become unmanageable, and to lead to destabilization, instability, and a decline in the authorities’ prestige.”

Russia’s liberal opposition has responded to the wildfire disaster by denouncing the Kremlin, directing the bulk of its criticism to Putin, as opposed to Medvedev, who it views as a potential political ally. In particular, several leading newspapers have carried editorials insisting that the slow response of local officials to the disaster and the efforts of regional leaders to cover up the extent of the crisis in their areas point to the failure of Putin’s “power vertical,” whereby regional governors are appointed by the Kremlin. Government corruption, several have noted, contributed to the wildfire disaster, as money intended for firefighting purposes was often used to purchase luxury items for state bureaucrats.

The claim is made that if the people had the right to choose local leaders, the officials would behave more responsibly. Remarking on the fact that the governor of Vladimir oblast, Nikolai Vinogradov, was on vacation while thousands of hectares of forestland in his region were ablaze, the liberal daily Nezavisimaia Gazeta stated, “Of course, if regional heads were elected, they would hardly permit themselves such liberties.”

The profoundly anti-democratic character of the Russian political system no doubt contributed to the wildfire disaster and the suffering of the population. However, this alone cannot explain why villages burnt to the ground for want of firefighting equipment or the peat bogs in surrounding Moscow were left unmonitored for fire danger.

The collapse of public services in Russia and the semi-privatization of the country’s forests are part and parcel of the restoration of capitalism, which the liberal opposition hails as a great historic achievement. The 2007 forest code passed by the Kremlin is not simply a product of Putin’s corrupt relationship with powerful logging and paper manufacturing interests in Russia. It is entirely in keeping with the political principles dictated by Russia’s market economy, in which the profit motive, not social needs, determines how resources will be utilized. (full long text).

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