Burnt sacrifice

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spent days touring fire-ravaged regions promising distraught refugees compensation and new houses. President Dmitry Medvedev cancelled his traditional holiday at his summer residence in Sochi. Both men subjected themselves to an excruciating televised telephone conversation with one another to show they are taking the situation seriously. But everyone is looking for someone else to blame.

Putin has lost no time in promising that heads will roll over the disaster especially the regional authority heads that he said earlier this week had failed to prepare properly for such incidents. After meeting with survivors of Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village that was wiped out by the fires, Putin called on the embattled mayor to resign when locals blamed the mayor for failing to fight the fires. Alexei Sokolov, the head of the Verkhnyaya Vereya district, duly fell on his sword.

Officials can’t be blamed for the hottest summer since records began, or the carelessness of the smokers, picnickers and farmers burning away field stubble, who are estimated to be behind 95 percent of the fires sweeping European Russia. Nor can they be blamed for the Soviet-era practice of draining peat bogs to mine them for fuel, which has left dried peat waiting to be ignited.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional affairs at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the problem is Putin’s obsession with centralizing power in Moscow. “Regional budgets are neither autonomous enough nor sufficient to let governors and regional authorities react quickly,” he explained. “If there is money in the regional budget, but it wasn’t decided a year ago to use it for fighting forest fires, then nothing can be done without getting special approval.” So lambasting the locals is unfair.

Watch in real-time how the replacement homes are being built

The implications of a system where anything can be sorted out as long as the “big man” takes charge were almost comically illustrated in Wednesday’s Kommersant, when Kremlin pool correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov recounted how, faced with skepticism that replacement homes would be built by November 1 as promised, Putin suggested using big brother-style tactics to check on progress.

“I’ll see to it that cameras are put at all the significant building sites … There will be a monitor in Parliament, one in my home and the third on the government Web site so everyone can see how construction is progressing,” Kolesnikov quoted the prime minster.

But does that mean if we give the regional governors the money, the means and, crucially, the authority to react to environmental disasters, everything be alright?

“Right now regional authorities have all the power to establish their own rules in terms of forest management and fire prevention,” said Shmatkov. ”But it’s also a matter of simple competence many people at the regional level just aren’t capable of producing harmonized and knowledgeable laws and regulations,” he added.

If we don’t want this summer’s disaster to be repeated, it would be much better to educate and train local mayors rather than firing them. As for the federal authorities, they need to recreate the Federal Forest Ranger Service and take it to a new level.

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