As forest fires continue to burn their way across Russia, criticism from the blogosphere has begun to embarrass the authorities. And so it should.
In a scathing attack posted on LiveJournal, a blogger writing under the name top_lap vented his frustration at the authorities’ chaotic efforts to contain the fires. He said the ponds his village had previously used as reservoirs for fighting fires had been filled in and sold to developers, the local fire engine had vanished and the fire bell had been removed.
Such is the sensitivity surrounding public anger over the government’s response that Vladimir Putin himself was forced to go online and answer top_lap’s claims. This in itself is noteworthy as the prime minister claimed in 2007 that he had never even written an email.
His blunt response might suggest his awkwardness with the medium, but the message was clear:
“On the whole I agree with your observations.”
For a man who is still seen as being at the apex of power in Russia to not only acknowledge but accept stinging criticism that effectively accuses his administration of prioritising profit over people’s safety is quite an admission. Whether, however, it amounts to anything more than a gesture of appeasement for growing public anger is quite something else.
What top_lap, along with others, highlights is a major problem for the Kremlin. Years of neglect have meant the country faces a mammoth task of replacing vast amounts of aging Soviet infrastructure in areas such as roads, airports, railroads and power-generation.
To give an idea of scale, although Russia accounts for over a fifth of the world’s landmass it has only half the length of railway lines than in the US, with the vast majority running outdated trains that average 25mph. Its road network is also in a dire condition as not only is it one tenth the size of the US’s but of that only around 5 per cent is considered “good quality”.
In 2007 German Gref, then the country’s economic minister, announced that $1,000 billion would be spent over the next decade to fund the much needed improvements. Only three years later, however, these efforts appear to have stalled.
Last year’s budget aimed at tackling Russia’s budget deficit contained huge cuts to infrastructure spending, with many schemes scaled back by over 50 per cent and others cut altogether. On top of this, much of the money that had been earmarked for Gref’s project were channelled instead into investments to help ailing companies during the financial crisis. This included $8 billion from Vnesheconombank, the country’s state-owned development bank, which was pumped into Rusal, the aluminium producer owned by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
Did the cuts have a direct impact on the ability of the authorities to respond to the fires? Probably not. These investments take years in the planning and even longer to be realised, so even without the financial crisis grand improvements overnight could hardly have been expected.
But what the fires have shown is the dire need for this modernisation of infrastructure and the folly of cutting an area that is a necessary condition of further sustained economic growth. How many more would have survived if some of these projects had been in place may be an impossible debate to have, but in memory of those who have died perhaps it is time for the Russian government to look again at its priorities.