Will the Wildfires Stoke Political Change in Russia?

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Ria Novosti / Pool / Alexei Druzhinin / Reuters

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov during their meeting in Moscow, Aug. 10, 2010

Russians are known to be a long-suffering people, especially when it comes to putting up with leaders who are senile, negligent or much, much worse. But the government's reaction to the ongoing heat wave may be hard to pass off with the usual shrug. Across much of central and western Russia, more than 500 wildfires continue to burn out of control. The capital is shrouded in a cloud of poisonous smoke, and the morgues are overflowing as the nationwide death rate jumps 50%. President Dmitri Medvedev, meanwhile, has spent much of this month talking about police reforms, and many local officials have simply gone on vacation. Now, as they return, the leaders of Russia — both big and small — are likely to have a political firestorm to deal with.

On a local level, the outrage has already entered the ranks of the United Russia party, the political retinue around Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A member of the regional legislature in Volgograd, where the heat has scorched much of the harvest, told TIME over the phone on Tuesday that he recently tore up his United Russia membership card, an act he says will cost him his political career. "I have completely lost faith in the party," Vladimir Dvuzhilov says. "For them it is always about political intrigue and never any good for the people." The fires in his home district of Novaya Anna began on June 24, he says, and destroyed about 1,000 hectares of land within days. When they sent word to the regional capital, Volgograd, authorities there registered it as a fire of 15 hectares and sent no aid to the district. "They didn't want to raise a fuss," Dvuzhilov says.

Throughout the heat wave, now in its seventh week, head-in-the-sand responses seem to have been the norm. On Monday, for instance, the federal health ministry rebuked local health officials in Moscow for announcing that the death rate in the capital had doubled to 700 people a day. The figure, however, was backed up by reports that the city's morgues were stuffed beyond capacity. But in its statement, the health ministry offered data suggesting the death rate had actually fallen by 9% in the first half of this year. It gave no data for July and August, and added that the "unofficial numbers" from the Moscow officials had "bewildered" the federal ministry.

But perhaps the most blatant attempts to downplay the disaster have come from the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. As the fires around his city choked the skies with smoke last week, Luzhkov was away on holiday. "What's the problem? What, do we have some kind of emergency situation, some kind of crisis situation? What's the problem in Moscow?" the mayor's spokesman told the LifeNews agency on August 6. Three days later, LifeNews reported that Luzhkov, an avid beekeeper, had ordered his prize-winning hives to be evacuated away from the smog. All the while, he has refused to declare a state of emergency for Moscow's human inhabitants. "The situation is not simple, but it is controllable," Luzhkov told Putin on Tuesday after he finally returned home, looking tanned but very grumpy. In response, Putin praised the mayor for cutting short his holiday and coming back "in good time."

According to opinion polls, however, the Russian public is not nearly so eager to pat its leaders on the back. In the last two weeks of July, state-run pollster VTsIOM reported that approval ratings for both Putin and Luzhkov had fallen to their lowest levels in more than four years, while Medvedev's numbers were at one of their lowest points since he took office in May 2008. At the same time, more Russians have started clamoring for the return of gubernatorial elections, which Putin canceled in 2004 when he handed the Kremlin the right to appoint regional leaders. In a survey released August 6 by the independent Levada Center, 59% of Russians now want to choose their own governors again, up by 5% since January.

"The problem is that we have never really known the concept of constituencies in Russia, so local officials have never had any real reason to appeal to voters," says Boris Dubin, a sociologist at the Levada Center. "Now, with these fires, people are seeing all the inefficiencies built into that arrangement." Next week, when Levada puts out its own political poll, Dubin expects the approval ratings for both Putin and Medvedev to keep dropping. "The Russian people want to hold someone accountable," he says. "Not just the semimythical figures of Putin and Medvedev, whom they only see on television, but someone who might hear out their concerns locally and react locally."

The next chance voters will get to express this kind of sentiment is scheduled for Oct. 10, when five regions will hold parliamentary elections and around 40,000 seats in municipal government bodies will also be up for a vote. Andrei Serenko, a political commentator and journalist in Volgograd, says the devastation of crops from the heat wave will be a deciding factor all along the Volga river, where millions of people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. "That's a huge portion of central Russia, a huge segment of the population that has been suffering with no assistance from ruling elites. So we are expecting new social movements to emerge from this outrage and offer up some kind of competition," he says. One option that local officials are discussing, Serenko says, is to resurrect the Agrarian Party, which was co-opted by Putin's United Russia in 2008.

But given United Russia's reputed skill at engineering elections, many analysts are not sure that change can come from the bottom up. Practically every national vote in Russia is marred by allegations of wholesale fraud, and even during the last nationwide round of balloting in October 2009 — when Russia was on the verge of financial collapse, unemployment was spiking, factories were closing — United Russia still won virtually all of the 7,000 regional elections held that day. "So, of course, this calamity has shaken the people's trust in power at all levels," says Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst in Moscow. "But aside from showing the ruling elites that they should do more to manipulate public opinion, give some more handouts, further marginalize the opposition, I don't think that any real change can come of this."

With a deep sigh into the telephone line from Volgograd, Dvuzhilov agrees. He expects to be squeezed out of the local assembly in the next election cycle for abandoning United Russia, so he has already turned his focus to salvaging the 350 hectares of grain on his family farm. "Maybe in 2012, with the presidential vote, something will come through for us then. But that would also take a miracle."