Thursday, November 27, 2014
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Russia is Burning

MOSCOW – For over a month, Moscow has been boiling in 40-degree (100 degrees Fahrenheit) heat and heavy, sticky, eye-burning smog. Carbon monoxide levels have reached crisis levels, at six times the maximum allowable concentration. Other toxic substances in Moscow’s air are at nine times the normal level.

In early August, a journalist called the office of Moscow's mayor, seeking comments on the situation. “The office is closed,” a woman at the press office answered, adding that smog had gotten inside the mayoral building, which is located less than two miles from the Kremlin, so everyone was ordered to go home. This was a weekday, shortly after lunch. “Is it at all possible to get a comment from Mayor Yuri Luzhkov?” the reporter asked. “He is not in Moscow,” the woman replied.

Indeed, there are reports that the mayor’s press secretary has been telling journalists that there is no reason for the mayor to return to Moscow. “Why should he?” said the secretary. “Is there a crisis in Moscow? No, there is no crisis.”

At the same time, a doctor from a local hospital was writing on his blog: “It is a disaster. There is no air conditioning in the hospital, no ventilators working, smog is penetrating everywhere, including the emergency room’s operating theatre. Each day, 16-17 people die. The morgue is full, and there are not enough refrigerators for the dead – they just put bodies along the walls.”

Indeed, according to the Moscow City Health Department, the death rate has doubled over the past few weeks. And yet Moscow’s mayor chose to remain on vacation outside the country. Thankfully, comments coming from Luzhkov’s press office caused such a public outrage that the mayor cut short his holiday to return to the city.

One wonders what would have happened if Luzhkov needed to face re-election (his term expires in October 2011). Would he have allowed himself such a vacation while his city was being ravaged by heat and toxic smog? Of course not. But neither Luzhkov, nor whoever may replace him, must worry about voter approval, as the Kremlin appoints Moscow’s mayor, rather than allowing for free and fair elections – a practice instituted a few years back by then-President Vladimir Putin for all such important positions across Russia.

Another example of this is the Nizhniy Novgorod region, just 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Moscow, which has been hit hard by the heat wave and fire. At least 36 people, including 7 children, have lost their lives in this region (in total 52 people have died in the European part of Russia due to fire), and more than 1,000 people have lost their homes and livelihoods.

Rare candid footage of Prime Minister Putin, displayed on government channels, depicted him visiting one of the towns in the region. People who had lost their homes, clothing, and everything else were complaining to Putin that the regional and local government did not warn them that the fire was coming. There were practically no fire trucks. In many towns and villages, there was no electricity, so water pumps were not operable. “No one even tried to save us,” they wailed to Putin, who was accompanied by the regional governor, Valery Shantsev.

A week later, an inauguration ceremony officially began Shantsev’s second term in office. Like all other Russian governors, he was not elected by those who live in his region (before becoming governor, he was Luzhkov’s deputy). He was appointed by the president, and thus bears no accountability whatsoever to those he is supposed to serve.

The fires in the European part of Russia have destroyed 190,000 hectares of forest. Forestry specialists blame a carelessly enacted 2007 law that cut 90% of forest guards. The law was proposed by the government and quickly passed by the Duma, where Putin’s party controls two-thirds of the votes. Shortly before the vote, the speaker of the Duma proclaimed that parliament is not a place for deliberation. Hence, the legislation was passed without any second thought or discussion – and Russians are now facing the consequences.

Russia’s burning summer of 2010 underscores something that political scientists everywhere acknowledge. Authoritarian regimes, owing to their lack of accountability, are dreadful at coping with anomalous situations. By controlling the mass media – television first and foremost – the leaders in such counties lack the ability to envisage and calculate possible risks.

Unfortunately, ordinary Russians have yet to connect the dots: the tragic situation in which they find themselves stems directly from how they voted in the past. The political apathy that characterizes today’s Russia presents a serious challenge to the country’s survival.

But it seems that this apathy is beginning to lift. The burning summer of 2010 may help Russians to understand that their very existence depends on whether the authorities can provide assistance in times of emergency. A regime that cannot respond to its citizens’ basic needs has no legitimacy at all.

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