The deadly floods in Russia's south have unleashed a groundswell of anger at the government. Could it shake the foundations of Putin's new presidency?
MOSCOW – The floodwaters had not yet receded in Krymsk when the political game-playing began. On July 7, less than 24 hours after waves several meters high had swept through the southern Russian town taking at least 171 lives, state television showed lengthy footage of President Vladimir Putin inspecting the damage by helicopter and demanding explanations from local officials. Meanwhile, Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the liberal opposition Yabloko party, wrote on his Twitter feed that he had incontrovertible evidence to prove the most disturbing of conspiracy theories.
A trusted ecologist, said Mitrokhin, had inspected a reservoir close to Krymsk and confirmed that the sluice gates had been opened the previous night. In order to save Novorossiisk — a much larger nearby city — from flooding, the theory went, the decision had been made to flood Krymsk instead, without warning the residents. Vitriolic abuse began flying online between government supporters and opposition activists. "People, you’ve really lost the plot," wrote Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin’s English-language television station Russia Today, retweeting a comment by an opposition-minded user saying "the dead have themselves to blame, for voting for ‘stability.’" She later added that she was with Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, and they were wondering why "instead of sympathy, there is hysteria on Twitter."
Perhaps wary of appearing too opportunist, and aware that the regime is doing their work for them, the major opposition figures to emerge from the anti-Putin street protests this winter have kept their rhetoric toned down, and instead focused on organizing the volunteer efforts. A kind of truce was declared as some neutral and pro-government figures joined with members of Russia’s nascent anti-government civil society movement to help the volunteers collect clothes, food, and other emergency supplies to be driven from Moscow and other cities to Krymsk. But don’t be fooled by the kumbaya gestures — there has been an unmistakeable political subtext to the entire response to the first major crisis of Putin’s new presidency.
Back in 2000, Putin faced the first crisis of his first presidency, the Kursk submarine disaster — in which a rescue attempt was delayed, then botched, and 118 sailors died in the frigid waters of the Barents Sea. From a political public relations perspective, Putin’s personal handling of events was a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. It was several days before he bothered to break his holiday on the Black Sea and return to Moscow to take command of the situation. The Kremlin tried in vain to keep a lid on the crisis and waved off international offers of assistance. Afterwards, when asked by CNN’s Larry King what had happened with the boat, he smirked and said: "It sank."
He has been on a long journey since then. The awkward Putin of 2000 has morphed into the action-man Putin that we have come to know: a man who single-handedly fells deadly tigers, harpoons pesky whales, and rides manly motorcycles. When forest fires hit Russia two years ago, Putin was on hand to personally fly a plane to help put the flames out. Krymsk, though, is the first crisis that Putin has had to deal with since the street protests against his rule started, and perhaps it’s the first time since 2000 when his rule has not seemed fully secure. Of course, Putin dispatched himself to the scene of the flooding as soon as possible, but what two years ago might have been seen as a perfect opportunity for Putin to get his hands dirty chipping in with the rescue efforts in front of the cameras was handled very differently this time.
There seemed to be a need to show Putin in control, but also a fear that should he be forced to interact with any real victims of the floods, the results could be embarrassing. Perhaps he took note in 2005 of U.S. President George W. Bush’s bungled response to the devastating Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans — an emergency and public relations effort that infuriated millions of Americans doubtful of his leadership skills. So, much like Bush’s famous photo op from Air Force One, television viewers were treated to several minutes of footage of Putin and Krasnodar Gov. Alexander Tkachev flying over the region in a luxury helicopter and discussing the damage. "Where did it all come from?" asked Putin, wearing a black shirt and a very concerned expression. "Like a tsunami. Awful," he added, when Tkachev told him that the waves had been seven meters high.
Judging from the reception given to Tkachev the next day when he addressed residents in one of Krymsk’s main squares, Putin made the right decision to stay away. They screamed and shouted at the governor; indeed, if it had not been for the high level of security, he may not have made it out intact. Russian politicians do not, as a rule, have experience in dealing with angry citizens, and Tkachev looked hot, bemused, and flailing. A trusted Putin lieutenant who wears sharp suits and expensive watches, Tkachev is viewed as important in Moscow mainly because his region contains Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Huge investments and regular allegations of corruption surround the preparations, and Tkachev is the man who oversees it all. He was probably expecting a pleasant summer feasting on canapés at the London Olympics, but instead found himself having to face the furious rabble of Krymsk.
Dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief, he said that the authorities had only found out that there was a serious danger of flooding at 10 p.m., apparently believing this to be a perfect excuse for the inaction. The locals, realizing that this meant there had been a window of three hours before the floods peaked — during which evacuation or at least warning could have taken place — howled in disapproval. In words that will probably haunt him for the rest of his career, an exasperated Tkachev shot back, "What, were we supposed to go around to every single person?"
The clip of the governor’s remark went viral. Later, so did a collage somebody had made of the words superimposed over the names of the dead. On Facebook and Twitter, people posted and re-posted the words, accompanied by expressions of disgust. In an attempt to assuage tempers, the mayor of Krymsk was fired on Monday, but anger at Tkachev, and ultimately Putin, has been unprecedented.
"Even worse things have happened before, like Beslan," says political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, referring to the mass hostage taking at a school by Chechen and Ingush insurgents in 2004, in which over 300 people died, many of them children. Many in Beslan blame the authorities, who began a siege of the school, for the deaths, but there has never been an independent investigation into what happened. "But except in Beslan itself, public opinion didn’t really register that the authorities might be to blame; that the Putin system might be to blame." Instead, Putin was able to use the tragedy as an excuse to get rid of the elections of governors, further strengthening his "power vertical," but not dealing with any of the systemic failures that had helped make Beslan possible.
In the last year, Oreshkin says, that has begun to change. "Suddenly, there is a mood of anger, and of distrust. As a geographer by training, I know that the rumors about the water being released from the reservoir are nonsense. They are physically impossible. However, people were so eager to believe that the authorities actually drowned their own citizens that this version almost became the accepted truth."
Americans may see parallels to the conspiracy theories believed by many New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina, a callousness that spoke to perceptions and the distance of government from citizens. What is interesting about Krymsk was that it was not just the distraught locals who were susceptible to the conspiracy theories, but the Moscow intelligentsia as well.
Decades of opaque governance has left Russians with an inbuilt mistrust for their rulers, but the reaction to Krymsk suggests that this lack of trust has now reached new levels. "It’s not just that the authorities’ version differs from the sufferers’ version," wrote the prominent journalist Oleg Kashin from Krymsk. "It’s that nobody believes the authorities any more, whatever they are talking about, whether it be natural disasters, elections or even soccer."
Neither, this time, has public opinion entirely channeled along the familiar "good Tsar, bad nobles" narrative. While Tkachev has absorbed a lot of the anger, Putin has not been spared, and the opposition has latched onto events in Krymsk as a tangential continuation of their street campaigns of recent months, a demonstration that the system they so oppose is unfit to rule. "Putin did not order the rain to fall on Krymsk, of course," ran an editorial in the newspaper Vedomosti. "But there is nevertheless a link between the number of victims and the system of power in this country. With no normal information available or political competition, the authorities do not react adequately to natural disasters."
This is not to say that all of Russia is getting ready to oust Putin tomorrow, or that the average citizen looks at Krymsk and sees in it Putin’s personal failure. The increasingly Soviet-tinged state television is still the main source of news for provincial Russians and Putin still retains at least passive support among two-thirds of the population. Moreover, the government has promised (and is promoting) the swift distribution of compensation: Families of the victims should receive 2 million rubles ($61,000) and the pledge that all damaged houses will be rebuilt before winter, which may go some way to quelling the local discontent.
"Of course, for now, the main centers of discontent are Moscow and some of the other big cities, and then places where real tragedies have occurred, like Krymsk," says Oreshkin. "But there is no doubt that a process has started, and that it is irreversible. We know how Putin behaves when he is in control, when the people love him, when he is the unassailable public leader. How he reacts in a situation where people whistle at him, where things are going against him and his support is falling — this, we don’t know. We are entering unchartered territory."