Russia's Fires May Have Strengthened Putin

When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met on Aug. 3 with residents of a village in the Moscow region that burned to the ground in the recent wildfires, he promised to rebuild their homes before winter. To make sure, he ordered round-the-clock video surveillance on the construction sites and put monitors of the sites in his home and office.

Political analysts say Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev handled the wildfire emergency poorly. Timberland, villages, and a naval base were destroyed as officials in Moscow initially failed to act and their local subordinates were reluctant to take charge, says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "All decisions are made and all commands are issued at the top, so everyone was waiting for orders from the Prime Minister."

Still, Petrov and other political analysts believe that the wildfires will result in more power for Putin. As the fires were raging, the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation asked 2,120 Russians living in seven affected regions to rate the performance of local and regional officials on a scale of 1 to 5. Respondents gave them average grades of 2.3 and 2.5, respectively. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev fared better, with average grades of 3.7 and 3.6.

In the teeth of the crisis, state media portrayed Putin consoling fire victims, meeting with local officials, publicly dressing down the head of the Federal Forestry Agency, and even co-piloting a fire-fighting plane. Since the fires ended, Putin has kept up the media blitz, tagging grey whales with a crossbow, driving cross country on a new highway, and calmly examining a nearby brown bear in a Siberian stream.

During his eight years as President before Medvedev got the job in 2008, Putin systematically weakened regional leaders and billionaires who challenged him, and boosted state control of the energy, banking, and transportation industries. Putin and Medvedev have already dismissed some officials for failing to control the fires, and Putin stated in late August that the forestry agency should now report directly to him, not to the Agriculture Ministry. "They can't admit that they're incompetent," says 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."

To critics including Boris Nemtsov, a Deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin, tightening the screws paradoxically shows how dysfunctional the government has become. "When Putin sticks cameras in the Vyksa district to check if materials are being stolen, he is admitting his own impotence," Nemtsov says. "This is manual control, and you can't run a country this big by hand."

Others say Russia needs that hand. Dmitry Zelenin, governor of the Tver region north of Moscow, says rebuilding houses before winter is "a serious challenge. To get it done, you have to get the higher-ups involved." If ordinary Russians agree with Zelenin, they can soon show their approval: Putin's United Russia party is contesting hundreds of regional seats in October elections.

The bottom line: The Kremlin did not handle the recent fires well. Yet Putin and Medvedev may still use the episode as a way to accrue more power.

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