9 August 2010
Alex Nice
Former Chatham House Expert


Here in Russia, low rainfall and searing heat - in some places the highest temperatures for 130 years - have turned the densely forested areas of European and Central Russia into a tinderbox. Misadventure and negligence have done the rest. Throughout August, serious fires have been reported in more than twenty regions of the country. The capital Moscow is shrouded in a thick cloud of noxious smog. Carbon monoxide levels are reported to be well above safe limits.

Poor Co-ordination

The official response to the crisis from the leadership has followed the usual depressing formula: an initially sluggish reaction followed by a series of largely symbolic gestures designed to create the appearance of decisive action and concern at the top. President Medvedev was in Sochi when the fires first started, returning to the capital only after a military air base outside Moscow was damaged. In his absence, Prime Minister Putin made a number of visits to towns destroyed by the fires, promising to rebuild property and provide compensation. More bizarrely, it was suggested that web cameras would be installed to keep track remotely of the reconstruction work - a tacit acknowledgement of the lack of public confidence in state capacity and the effectiveness of the 'vertical of power'. Television coverage has been careful to filter out the angry responses of many of those Putin met, frustrated by official neglect which has weakened emergency capability, and a regime unable to coordinate an effective response to protect lives and property.

Slow Response

Forest fires are not unique to Russia, and one only has to look at recent events in the Gulf of Mexico to see that governments of all pedigrees can struggle to cope adequately with environmental disaster in the eyes of their citizens. However, questions must surely be raised about why it took so long for the government to respond. The fires have been burning for almost a month, but it wasn't until week three that the army was called in to assist.

Experts have also pointed to the decision to transfer responsibility for forest management from the federal to the local level, which has led to a loss of coordination and cuts in funding. Astonishingly, with a state of emergency declared in several parts of the country, President Medvedev felt he could afford to take time out from managing the crisis to visit the break-away territory of Abkhazia on Sunday to mark the second anniversary of the war with Georgia - another ignominious August day in Russia's history.

Fragile Infrastructure

The disaster has once again exposed the weaknesses of Russia's closed political system and the fragility of its infrastructure. Medvedev has made much of his modernisation agenda for Russia, promising to build an advanced innovation economy. Such ambitions overlook the basic needs of citizens, which the state is failing to guarantee. In the absence of coordination, manpower and resources, many people have been left to battle the fires themselves. As the political commentator Yulia Latynina noted: 'in developed countries, citizens don't perish in fires. Firefighters perish. In Russia, it is directly the opposite.'

Relief from the immediate disaster will come only with a change in the weather. Meanwhile the acrid smog engulfing Moscow is a bitter metaphor for a suffocating political system, deprived of fresh people, fresh ideas, and fresh air.