Streetwise Professor

August 4, 2010

Up In Smoke

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:18 pm

If only this were about Cheech and Chong.  Russia’s Long Hot Summer is having devastating effects.  Some effects are economic (a devastated wheat crop, leading to calls to ban wheat exports in order to mitigate any price spike in Russia).  Some effects are actually fatal, such as the rash of drowning deaths I wrote on earlier.  And the epidemic of fires has both effects.  The death toll (the last count I read was 48, which is high compared to the kind of toll you see in wildfires in the western US) will likely climb.

Wildfires are extremely frightening things.  I have distinct memories of watching as a kid a documentary about a western wildfire–if memory serves, it was near Mt. Baker in Washington state.  They are literally chaotic, and can go non-linear in both space and time.  This makes them difficult to predict, and fight.

This means that effective firefighting requires a good deal of contingency planning; investment in equipment in quantities and types that can respond forcefully to a highly dynamic situation; excellent communications so that those in danger can be contacted and directed to safety, and so that information moves quickly; and a reliance on trained personnel who can act on the spot in response to sudden developments.

Even with all that, firefighting is always an uphill struggle, and firefighters lose many battles.

And it is clear that Russia doesn’t have all of that.  Part of that is understandable.  Russia is a poor country, still, especially as compared to say the US and California.  Whereas wildfires are an annual risk in the US (albeit one that waxes and wanes with weather conditions), they are more exceptional in Russia. The country is so vast and thinly populated that it would be hugely expensive to make the investments.

But what is going on in Russia now suggests that performance is poor, even giving allowances for the factors just mentioned.  It casts doubt on state capacity and competence; the rationality of spending priorities; and the ability of authorities to respond in a crisis.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the official response seems as much focused on appearing to be in charge and doing something, rather than actually being in charge and doing something.  This staged dialog between Putin and Medvedev, and Putin’s on-the-spot  interventions are rather pathetic, actually:

On Friday, he flew to the Nizhny Novgorod region, where he visited a village that had been reduced to ashes. Dressed in a light blue shirt and dark blue jeans, Putin moved from one blackened ruin to another, shaking his head. He ended up surrounded by a big group of grieving residents.

“Before winter, all the houses will be standing,” Putin said, raising his voice to be heard by the entire crowd — and by cameras of all the main television networks that broadcast the meeting across Russia.

“Do you promise us?” a woman asked. “Yes, I promise,” Putin replied, adding that each family member will receive more than $6,000 in compensation.

“We will visit you with a huge bow [of gratitude] from the newly built village,” said one woman. Putin hugged and kissed her; she kissed him back.

In the next televised report, Putin is standing in a picturesque birch grove, his cellphone to his ear as he talks to Medvedev, who is sitting at his Kremlin desk.

Putin: “All the necessary measures on the spot we have taken, and I think it is expedient and would ask you to sanction the use of additional Defense Ministry forces and means to combat the fire.”

Medvedev: “As for the idea to use the Defense Ministry, I give such sanction.”

Putin: “We need to talk with the governors of other regions and take children out to other regions not as smoky as this one.”

Medvedev: “Yes, it is a good idea. Unfortunately we have casualties. Relatives of the deceased should be paid compensation.”

Putin: “We need to talk with the governors of other regions and take children out to other regions not as smoky as this one.”

Medvedev: “Yes, it is a good idea. Unfortunately we have casualties. Relatives of the deceased should be paid compensation.”

Putin: “We have done that already.”

Cut!  Print!  Jeez, all that’s about as genuine as Velveeta.  I admit to surprise that Putin still had his light blue shirt on (same color as the menty, BTW): I fully expected him to appear bare chested, shovel in hand, playing firejumper, with the cameras snapping and rolling.  But there’s still time.

This was all just transparent propaganda, with a mixture of Soviet and Cult of Personality production values.

Then there’s this:

Putin, Russia’s most popular politician, has tried to limit criticism of the response by visiting destroyed villages and promising compensation. But angry residents have surrounded him and complained that firefighters came too late, or that preventative measures were inadequate.

“Today I have given an order for video cameras to be installed on every construction site,” Putin told villagers in Mokhovoye, near Moscow. Pictures of the rebuilding of cottages would be beamed directly to “the government building, to me at home and to the website of the government”, he said, adding: “Any citizen will be able to watch in real time what is happening.”

A classic magician’s (or three card monte dealer’s) ploy: distract attention from the big picture to the trivial.  How about cameras at randomly chosen fire-affected locations?  Now that would be a much more effective way of monitoring government performance.  Which means that it won’t happen.  And I seriously don’t suggest trying it at home.

Another measure (alluded to in the first quote) is the dispatching of 40,000 soldiers to fight fires.  Firefodder, as it were.  For inter alia (a) the soldiers are almost certainly not trained for this duty, (b) they will not be supported by the water bombers and other equipment that is needed to make serious progress, and (c) the geographic scope of the fires is so immense, and the transportation network (again, the roads) so pathetic that it will be virtually impossible for the soldiers to move in response to changes in the location of the greatest fire dangers.

And the Russian military has not exactly covered itself with glory when the fire came to it, let alone when having to go to the fire:

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired senior navy officers for “criminal negligence” in the destruction of a base near Moscow by wildfires that have killed 48 people across the country to date.

The aviation supply base near Kolomna, 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Moscow, burned on July 29, destroying the headquarters, 13 warehouses and 17 parking lots with vehicles, according to the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office.

The officers in charge of the base “failed to perform their duties” when “a fire that was spreading rather slowly wasn’t contained, and the base leadership were nowhere to be found,” Medvedev said at a government meeting in Moscow today.

And all Putinprop notwithstanding, a credible case can be made that his decisions were so much tinder that contributed to the fire crisis:

But critics blame the lower house of parliament (Duma) for rushing through a new Forest Code in 2006 on Putin’s orders. This disbanded a centralised system of forest protection and turned the country’s vast forests into a virtual no-man’s land.

. . . .

Environmentalists blame bureaucracy and business lobbies for the faults in the forestry legislation, which they say was aimed at milking the Russian forests for quick profits.

“This law is good for large companies with (close connections to the authorities), enabling them to quickly cut trees, make money and leave,” said Alexei Yaroshenko at Greenpeace Russia.

Yaroshenko also said the new code abolished Russia’s 70,000 forest guards, who used to watch over the trees and call in fire fighters to any blaze. It also made it easier to reclassify forest as lucrative development land.

Under Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party drafted a forest strategy aiming to exploit the nation’s timber on a scale comparable to its oil and gas riches, which are the world’s largest.

Environmentalists say Russia’s largest timber processing firm Ilim Group was one of the main driving forces behind the new Forest Code.

President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s chosen successor in the Kremlin, once worked as head of Ilim’s legal department.

“There are excesses in the new code,” said Dmitry Chuiko, adviser to Ilim Group’s board. “The practical experience has shown that a centralised system of fire protection should be stronger than stipulated.”

But he added: “On the whole the code is good for us. It protected the interests of large forest users.”

I’m sure it did, Dmitry.  The natural state at work.  (To preempt a barrage of whataboutisms, I concede that regulatory capture has had similar effects in the US, in forestry and in banking and in energy.  Which is why I can just shake my head in amazement when people repeat the incantation “more regulation” will fix problem X.)

The LAT article (first quoted) focuses on the implications of the Kabuki Theater starring Putin and Medvedev for the future political course of Russia.  That’s understandable, if discouraging.  It would be far more illuminating to develop more information about actual state performance under Putin, either as President or PM, and evaluating critically the implications of Putin’s governance for the actual capacity of that state to carry out legitimate public functions, as opposed to its real function as a rent redistribution machine.

The fires, therefore, should cast an intense light on the fact that which personality sits atop the natural state is largely irrelevant.  It is the nature of that state–pun sort of intended–that should get the attention.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Craig pirrong, Craig pirrong and Craig pirrong, Craig pirrong. Craig pirrong said: Updated my SWP blog post: ( ) […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor » Up In Smoke -- — August 4, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  2. SWP, here’s a genuine new low for Russia. They are SO desperate because of their predictable and total failure to properly prepare for and manage this crisis that that they are blaming it on the United States:

    Yup, it’s a plot by evil Americans to destroy Russia.

    Sign of the neo-Soviet apocalypse? You better believe it.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 5, 2010 @ 3:59 am

  3. Incidentally, if any conspiracy theory is credible it’s that the Kremlin brings on crises like these to weaken the population and increase state power:

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 5, 2010 @ 4:42 am

  4. Well, at least Medvedev is not averse to giving the sack. With Putin loyalty trumps all.

    Comment by So? — August 5, 2010 @ 7:50 am

  5. First hand account of the devastation and no help.

    Comment by voroBey — August 5, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  6. Guys, I’m here, and I’m of two minds. I’m at my dacha, on a shady lot in two uninsulated rooms that are generally so cool I turn on the heater at night. It’s now Week Five of temperatures over 30 C almost every day. Three times it has rained — for 10 minutes. Every day the electricity goes off, or the wireless server shorts out, or my cell phone goes dead, and/or we lose water — usually from 5 pm until midnight, because usage is so great that the spring that gives water to our well can’t keep up. It’s really, really, really bad. The most organized, prepared, well-funded and well-organized system wouldn’t be able to cope with this. On the other hand, we don’t have an organized, prepared, well-funded, and well-organized system. And people are idiots. My neighbor has his sprinkler on 24/7 even though he loses water because of it. People start bonfires to burn constuction material and leave them unattended. So yeah, the authorities are really f*cking up. But yeah, it really is a miserable situation. There has never been anything like this in the recorded history of Moscow.

    Comment by mossy — August 5, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  7. Mossy–hang in there. Sounds miserable beyond belief. “Watering ban” is apparently an alien concept, huh? And the bonfire thing is really scary.

    I wonder how you’ll look back on this in January?

    voroBey–Thanks. Interesting

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 5, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  8. SO? —

    Firing only makes sense if you have somebody better to replace them. Medvedev doesn’t. So he’s simply thinning the ranks of those who might do something, albeit largely useless, and deflecting blame from where it belongs — his shoulders.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 5, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

  9. I have to say I was quite surprised, in a good way, to see Putin taking it directly in the ear from pissed off citizens in Nizhny Novgorod in a YouTube video floating around. Not a lot of real, quality work can be done in a chaotic situation like that, but simply seeing the people that close up was quite interesting. Along with Putin was Governor Valery Shantsev of the Nizhny Region (the one more bald than Putin) He’s my old buddy, having talked with him three times in meetings. An interesting character riding the horse well that Putin (and Luzkhkov before him) has given him (recently re-appointed by Medvedev after his first term started from Putin. Whether the promises Putin makes to these people happen or not, I’m not sure there is a victory here. There is no system still to handle these issues, just characters in a drama.

    This reminds me of a very naive question I asked a German friend years ago. I said, “When they say Russia doesn’t have a social society, what do they mean?” He simply said, well, you know, when every small town in Germany and America have 5 sport leagues and a volunteer fire department. You know, stuff like that.” Aha, it all came clear to me… so where were those volunteer fire fighters in Russia? Oh yeah, nevermind. The new volunteers are the army. Yikes.

    Comment by Howard Roark — August 5, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

  10. Sorry, meant “civil society”, not “social society”.

    Comment by Howard Roark — August 5, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  11. I wrote my thoughts here: “note to the commentariat: bad forest management & AGW behind Russia’s fires, not Putin / underfunding / corruption etc”

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 6, 2010 @ 1:17 am

  12. ???? ?????? to the rescue!

    Comment by So? — August 6, 2010 @ 3:06 am

  13. Thanks, Prof, and yeah — I keep reminding myself of all those cold rainy summers. Isn’t this better, I say? But it’s hard to see the bright side. There is supposed to be “local settlement control” over watering and bonfires, and the security guys drive around, pulling bottles of water out to put out fires and yelling at people about the sprinklers. But it’s not very effective, in part because people have put up huge fences around their property, and they can’t see everything. Today is another day when the wind shifted and everything is covered with thick smoke. The levels of crap in the air in the city are off the charts.

    On Putin “taking control.” This is a double-edged sword. As you all probably know, the Youtube footage wasn’t shown on TV, but people know he went there and promised new houses etc. On the one hand, some people probably think: Molodets! Taking control from those local jerks who didn’t do their job. He cares about people. On the other hand, some people also think: So what happened to the power vertical? If you’re on the top with top-down command, why did you let it get this bad? And why is it that the only time problems get fixed is when you show up? Don’t we have any system of governance that works without the prime minister taking charge?

    So I’m not sure how this is going to play out. I’ve been surprised at the ferocity of government criticism from “average citizen” types who usually support Putin. We had a smaller version of this horror in 2002, and I don’t remember any criticism of the government at the time. I don’t think this is the straw that will break the camel’s back, but I do think people’s general sense of being fed up is being pushed up another notch. S/O can cite all the supposedly “good” aspects of the new fire code, but people aren’t convinced. Besides, the complaint is that help isn’t getting to the villages in time or at all. And it’s hard to imagine how that army case went up in smoke.

    Comment by mossy — August 6, 2010 @ 7:00 am

  14. oops. that should be “army base”
    Brain shorting out due to lack of oxygen.

    Comment by mossy — August 6, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  15. […] an Aug. 4 post, Streetwise Professor noted that, for a number of reasons, Russia lacked much of what was needed for “effective […]

    Pingback by Global Voices in English » Russia: Anglophone Bloggers Discuss Social and Political Aspects of the Wildfires — August 18, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

  16. […] an Aug. 4 post, Streetwise Professor noted that, for a number of reasons, Russia lacked much of what was needed for “effective […]

    Pingback by Russia: Anglophone Bloggers Discuss Social and Political Aspects of the Wildfires :: Elites TV — August 18, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

  17. […] an Aug. 4 post, Streetwise Professor noted that, for a number of reasons, Russia lacked much of what was needed for “effective […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Russia: Anglophone Bloggers Discuss Social and Political Aspects of the Wildfires — August 19, 2010 @ 2:01 am

  18. […] an Aug. 4 post, Streetwise Professor noted that, for a number of reasons, Russia lacked much of what was needed for “effective […]

    Pingback by Russia: Anglophone Bloggers Discuss Social and Political Aspects of the Wildfires | The Global Citizen — August 19, 2010 @ 2:06 am

  19. […] ????? ?????? ????? ???? ??????? ??????? ?? ????? / ?? ??? ?????? ????? ?????? ?? ??????? ???? ???? ?? ???? ?????? ????? ???? ?? ??????? ???? ???? ?? ??????? ??????? ????? ???????? ?????????? ???????? ???????? ?????????? ????????? ???????? ??????? ???? ???????? ?????? ?? ????? ??????? ??????? ??? ???????? ????? ?????? – ??????? ???????? ??? ???: […]

    Pingback by Global Voices ???????? » ?????: ?????? ????? ????? ??????? ?????????? ????????? ?????? ??????? — September 1, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

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