Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Siberian Fires Burning Away Last of Kremlin’s Legitimacy, Luzin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 12 – Forest fires have been a regular fact of Russian life for a long time, but this year’s fires have been transformed into “a public scandal” because the authorities first said there was no reason to spend money fighting them but then, under pressure from the population, deployed the Russian air force to do just that, Pavel Luzin says.

            In its dealings with the enormous fires, the powers that be have “demonstrated their own incompetence and the low capacity of the system as a whole” to cope with basic problems and cast doubt among Russians about the advisability of living according to rules dictated to them by the Kremlin, the Russian regionalist says (

            Putting out massive fires is “very difficult,” Luzin concede; but “it is possible to predict them and not to allow them to spread to hundreds of thousands and millions of hectares.” Tragically, Moscow hasn’t been up to that.  Its defenders have disingenuously pointed to the problems the US has had in California.

            But not only are California’s problems different in scale and nature because of the density of population, but no one there was proposing as Russian officials have about letting enormous “control zones” simply continue to burn because it would be difficult and expensive to fight fires there, the regionalist argues.

            “The Russian power system is based on total distrust in its own executors,” that is, these fire control zones “have appeared because the central powers that be are not capable of controlling the spending of resources for putting out these fires or capable of providing enough of these resources to do the job.”

            That has happened, Luzin says, because decisions about dealing with fires are concentrated in Moscow far away from the victims of such fires. Regional and local officials in Russia don’t have the resources or the authority to what is necessary. They must wait for Moscow which has a different agenda.

            What this means, Luzin continues, is that “the Russian power system in its present form a priori cannot be effective,” something ever more people can see and thus are asking why do they need such centralized institutions as the emergency services ministry if it is incapable of doing hat needs to be done.

            The “negative selection” of officials, of course, is making things worse. When governors say there is no need to fight the fires, Russians are angry just as they were when another official said they shouldn’t be asking the government for anything because the government didn’t ask them to be born.

Vladimir Putin has sought to exploit such absurdities to make himself look good, but he hasn’t been able to deliver; and Russians suffering from fires and floods are drawing their own conclusions. Ever more of them distrust the authorities, a trend highlighted by the rumors and myths now circulating in Siberia.

Some people say that the fires were set to hide Chinese exploitation of Russian forests, oblivious to the fact that only about 240,000 hectares would have to be burned to do that and millions of hectares are in flames. But to focus on that, Luzin suggests, is to focus on the bigger problem: the greed of the authorities and the increasing ability of Russians to see that.

“The fires yet again have sown that Russian citizens are not indifferent to what goes on in their country,” he continues. “This is true regardless of the Kremlin’s efforts to convince people of the contrary.”  And thanks to natural disasters and man-made ones like trash dumps as well, the green agenda is becoming “one of the dominant ideological trends” in Russian society.

Such problems invariably have a local dimension with which the hyper-centralized Russian state cannot cope, and so anger about environmental degradation is leading to questions about the injustice and incompetence of the current power structure to protect Russians from disaster.

            “It is possible,” Luzin concludes, “that the civic consensus around the great idea will become in the foreseeable future one of the locomotives of political changes in Russia, including the need for serious decentralization.” 

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