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The scapegoats for the devastating flooding earlier this month in the southern Russian city of Krymsk have been singled out by the authorities. And they are, as it happens, the authorities themselves: three regional officials have been sacked and arrested on charges of official negligence. Yet even though the Kremlin has found someone to blame, the move is unlikely to quell any of the discontent over the official mismanagement of the crisis, experts say.
After his second trip to the flood-ravaged Krasnodar Region, President Vladimir Putin seemed to heed local complaints – and even official admission – that area residents had not been warned in time to evacuate the doomed city of Krymsk. He promised a swift investigation into exactly who was to blame, charging Russia’s Investigative Committee with the task of weeding out the culprits.
“If it turns out that some official did not fulfill his duties in a timely manner, including the duty of providing advance warning about a flood threat. They will be held responsible in accordance with the law,” RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying last week.
And it did turn out that some officials had, in fact, failed to fulfill their duties. The first to take the hit were Krymsk Mayor Vasily Krutko, the former Head of the Krymsk District Vladimir Ulanov, and the acting head of the local emergency service Viktor Zhdanov. The Investigate Committee is charging them with official negligence leading to multiple deaths, for which they face up to seven years in prison as well as a three-year ban on holding political office afterward. The committee also blamed the hospitalized Irina Ryabchenko, the head of the Nizhnebakanskoe settlement, though it did not order her arrest.
The grounds for their prosecution seem solid. In the days after Russia’s most devastating natural disaster in years had struck the region, residents charged that its lethality was exacerbated by a slew of officials who failed to warn the population. Indeed, Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev even admitted that warnings had been sent out only hours before the raging waters hit – and only via text messages and TV tickers, amid mass power outages. Partly as a result, many of the 171 people reported killed in the floods died in their homes as giant waves washed over their neighborhoods.
It’s clear that removing top local officials will not undo the damage to human lives, homes and physical property in Krymsk and the surrounding region. But Putin’s largely symbolic gesture does lend credence to the fact that the loss of life could’ve largely been avoided – and that someone must be held accountable. It is, after all, Putin who in earlier moments of crisis rolled up his sleeves and took subordinates to task, whether over bureaucratic mismanagement, negligence, or corporate greed.
Yet experts said ulterior motives abound. According to political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, Putin’s firing of Krutko, Ulanov and Zhdanov kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, “by sacrificing these small pawns he’s trying to protect Tkachev,” the deeply unpopular governor but a crucial ally overseeing the region ahead of the 2014 Olympics, he said. On the other, he added, it beefs up Putin’s image as the consummate problem solver. “He turned from a nobody into a national hero on TV, so he knows how it’s done,” Piontkovsky said. “He’s very sensitive to his TV image.”
But judging by the continuing rumblings in southern Russia, people are far from satisfied. Local residents are still complaining about a lack of assistance – and, where it’s available, the daunting bureaucracy that stands in the way – as well as other crucial deficiencies they’ve chalked up to the authorities. Perhaps most striking, however, is the widespread local belief that up to 3,000 people may have died in the flooding, in what would amount to a Chernobyl-esque official downplaying of the tragedy.
Other experts say there’s far too much distrust built into the fabric of a post-protest society for the Kremlin’s damage control plan to produce results. Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center told Russia Profile shortly after the flooding that even if local officials were not directly connected to the massive death toll, citizens would still have clung to their own convictions. “The way it was covered from the very beginning was that society in general, and those people in Krymsk in particular, are sure that their [local] government, their officials and the Russian government are responsible for all bad things,” he said.
Piontkovsky agreed. “It seems that Putin is not a ‘Teflon president,’” he said. “He got away with Kursk, he got away with Beslan, but it seems he’s not getting away very smoothly with Krymsk.”
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