The World from Berlin 'The Kremlin's Central Control Is the Real Disaster'

Moscow is engulfed in smog, 500 fires are still blazing across Russia and the deadly wildfires could pose a nuclear threat if they spread to an area contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster. The German press on Friday says the overcentralization of power is partly to blame for the disaster.

Russians try to stop fire spreading near the village of Golovanovo.

Russians try to stop fire spreading near the village of Golovanovo.

On Friday morning, Muscovites woke up to another day of acrid smog as fires continued to burn near the Russian capital. The wildfires that have torn through forests, peat bogs and villages across the country over the past two weeks have killed 50 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Officials at the Russian Emergencies Ministry in Moscow have stated that 500 separate blazes, mainly across western Russia, are still burning. With the forecast for the week ahead showing that temperatures could approach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), officials are struggling to ensure that the blazes do not reach explosives in military facilities or an area contaminated with radioactivity from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu warned on Thursday that the deadly wildfires could pose a nuclear threat if they spread in the Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine and Belarus and is around 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the former Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine.

Shoigu said that two fires had already broken out in the Bryansk region but had been quickly contained. He warned, however, that if further bigger fires occurred there they could release harmful radioactive particles into the atmosphere. "Radionuclides could rise (into the air) together with combustion particles, resulting in a new pollution zone," he said on state television.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Russia in Flames

Meanwhile, a military garrison 70 kilometers outside Moscow has moved all its rockets and artillery to a safer location as wildfires advance in the region. On Wednesday, President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed several military officers after a fire ravaged another military base, burning 200 aircraft and helicopters to the ground. And all hazardous material has been removed from the Sarov nuclear research facility, around 480 kilometers (300 miles) east of Moscow. Fires have been raging just a few kilometers away from the site.

Prime Minister Vladmir Putin, who has made a point of visiting many of the affected areas, on Thursday announced that wheat exports would be halted until the end of the year. Russia, one of the world's biggest exporters of grain, will ban the exports from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31, with the possibility of extending the prohibition into the following year. Last week, Russian officials stated that 20 percent of its wheat crop this year had been destroyed by drought and wildfires. "We need to prevent a rise in domestic food prices, we need to preserve the number of cattle and build up reserves for next year," Putin said during a televised cabinet meeting.

On the editorial pages on Friday, the German press argues that the overly centralized Russian state was ill-equipped to deal with a disaster on this scale.

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The political leadership, which usually likes to boast of its omnipotence, can rightly point out that it only has a limited influence upon nature. The power of Vladmir Putin and his protégé Medvedev does not extend so far after all."

"Yet that is only half the truth, because the conflagration also reveals the political leadership's incompetence. The principle of central control that the Kremlin under Putin reimposed on the country has proven itself to be the real disaster. Now Russia's supposedly stronger state doesn't seem to be in a position to fulfil the most elementary tasks of statehood."

"The politicians show no sign of accepting responsibility for this, they don't have to justify themselves to anyone. After all, there are no free elections and the population seems to be largely happy with its role as onlookers."

"There is no threat of an Orange Revolution in Russia. Sure the Russian public realizes that a country that can't even organize a functioning fire-fighting infrastructure is not really in a position to create its own Silicon Valley. Yet the people want stability not change."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin has been presenting himself as the country's top fire fighter and rebuilder. He is traveling to the areas most affected by the fires, shaking fire fighters by the hand, trudging through the burned-out forests, speaking with victims and encouraging volunteers."

"Yet, in the eyes of many critics the natural disaster has laid bare the weaknesses of a system that Putin established during his eight years as president. He curtailed the regions' autonomy, and built a pyramid of power, in which responsibility was always delegated upwards. The measure by which the governors and regional leaders were to be judged was not efficiency but loyalty -- those who displayed enough of this quality were given the freedom to pursue their own private business affairs and did not have to fear an opposition or a critical press, because their freedoms had been increasingly curtailed by Putin."

-- Siobhán Dowling


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