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Putin Fire Webcams Show Power Pyramid Weakens Regions

Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin
Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference. Photographer: Giuseppe Aresu/Bloomberg

When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with residents of a burned-out village near Moscow this month, he promised to rebuild their homes before winter. To make sure, he ordered round-the-clock video surveillance on construction sites and put monitors in his home and office.

Such micromanagement highlights the top-down command structure that Putin has built since ascending to power in 1999 -- and also its limitations, said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

During the recent fires, which blackened 934,738 hectares (3,609 square miles), forests, villages and even a navy base were destroyed as officials in Moscow failed to act and their local subordinates were reluctant to take charge, Petrov said.

“The system is organized as a pyramid,” he said. “All decisions are made and all commands are issued at the very top, so everyone was waiting for orders from the prime minister.”

During eight years as president before he turned the job over to Dmitry Medvedev and became prime minister in 2008, Putin systematically centralized power, weakening regional leaders and billionaires who asserted their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He and Medvedev may clamp down further as they seek to insulate themselves from blame over the fires.

“They can’t admit that they’re incompetent,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst in Moscow. “So they say they’re competent but don’t have enough power, and they’ll have to tighten the screws.”

Putin, 57, used previous crises to concentrate power. After the 2004 Beslan hostage tragedy, when 335 people died during a siege in which security forces attacked Chechen terrorists holding schoolchildren captive, Putin eliminated gubernatorial elections in favor of what amount to presidential appointments.

‘Nowhere to Be Found’

In the wake of the fires that killed 54 people and left 3,300 homeless, Putin and Medvedev have already dismissed some officials and said the performance of others will be reviewed. Medvedev, 44, fired five senior navy officers on Aug. 4 after wildfires destroyed a supply depot outside Moscow. Base commanders were “nowhere to be found” as the slow-moving blaze engulfed the base, Medvedev said during a Security Council meeting, according to comments on the Kremlin website.

According to prosecutors, the navy failed to clear the required 50-meter (165-foot) fire break around the base and allowed grass inside the perimeter to grow waist high.

Base officials responded by saying their fire brigade was eliminated during the military’s modernization drive and outside fire agencies didn’t answer calls for help, according to a report by independent broadcaster REN TV.

Meanwhile, state news media have portrayed Putin as the man who got things done during the fire crisis, showing him crisscrossing the country to console fire victims, meet with local officials and even co-pilot a firefighting plane.

Putin’s ‘Impotence’

On July 30, Putin met with residents of a village destroyed by fire in the Vyksa district of the Nizhny Novgorod region and vowed to take “personal control” of the rebuilding effort, according to the prime minister’s website.

To critics including Boris Nemtsov, 50, who helped found the opposition Solidarity movement, such actions show how weak government has become on Putin’s watch.

“When Putin sticks web cameras in the Vyksa district to check if building materials are being stolen, he is admitting his own impotence,” Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under the late President Boris Yeltsin, said in an Aug. 11 interview. “This is manual control, and you can’t run a country this big by hand.”

Punishment ‘Essential’

Dmitry Zelenin, governor of the Tver region north of Moscow, defended the government’s performance during the fires and said punishing officials was “essential in Russia.”

Building houses before winter “is a serious challenge and a simple response isn’t enough,” said Zelenin, 47, who was elected in 2003 and reappointed four years later. “It’s not a question of cameras, but of greater supervision. To get it done, you have to get the higher-ups involved.”

In the economic sphere, Putin has increased state control of the energy, banking and transportation industries as the world’s largest oil producer struggles to modernize its economy and reduce dependence on energy exports.

Russia needs centralized power for the time being as it seeks to overcome the legacy of communism, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib Financial Corp. in Moscow.

“The federal government will have to devolve power and responsibility to regional and local administrations, but the country is far from ready for that,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions. “In the meantime, we may see more accidents and localized crisis as administrators take the attitude of ‘not my job, call the Kremlin.’”

‘Absurd’ Breakdowns

Medvedev said some governors told him it was easier to reach him directly than to call local garrison commanders when they tried to take advantage of a presidential decree directing soldiers to help fight the fires.

Such a breakdown is “absurd,” Medvedev said on Aug. 9 at a meeting with officials in the Mari El republic, where a state of emergency was declared because of the fires.

The rivalry among all three levels of government was on display at the session, according to a transcript of the meeting posted on the Kremlin website.

Nikolai Sorokin, mayor of the city of Kilemarsky, told Medvedev his community wasn’t prepared for the crisis because it didn’t have authority to buy firefighting equipment.

“We are not allowed to spend money to buy heavy machinery,” he said. “And if we do, prosecutors will say that this is a misuse of public funds.”

Regional chief Leonid Markelov tried to cut him off.

“If we give you budgetary powers, there won’t be any money,” Markelov said. “We have enough powers inside the region to sort things out. This isn’t a question for the president of Russia.”

“No, this is a presidential matter,” Medvedev shot back. He ended the meeting by thanking those in attendance for “supporting a vertical of power.”

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