Covering Up the Wildfires: The Kremlin's Smokescreen

By Christian Neef

As the Russian wildfires continue to burn, the Kremlin's spin machine is in high gear, as the government attempts to cover up the true scale of the disaster. The country's leadership duo, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, have been using the same PR stunts and propaganda gimmicks they have relied on in the past.

Photo Gallery: Smoke and Mirrors in Moscow Photos
REUTERS

It sounded like a huge finale when a heavy thunderstorm came crashing down on Moscow in the early hours of last Friday. But it was too early to celebrate the end of Russia's wildfire disaster. After scorching the region for exactly two months, with daytime temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), on Friday morning the heatwave continued. The suffering will go on, at least for this week.

A total of 505 existing wildfire hotspots were still blazing on Friday. While the Emergency Situations Ministry was already announcing that the fires were being brought under control, the heat had sparked new fires at 245 new locations. To make matters worse, it is primarily in areas contaminated with radioactivity that firefighters still have to battle the flames.

It was only last week that the government admitted that fires have been burning since mid-June in the very districts that were contaminated with radionuclides following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. Although there is no danger that the fires will again cause a plume of radioactive fallout to extend as far as Western Europe, there is a significant risk for local residents. But so far the authorities have refused to answer the question of whether additional areas were contaminated with the dangerous radioactive isotope, caesium-137. One environmentalist said that he suspects they are keeping quiet because they fear that even more claimants would otherwise be entitled to compensation payments from the state.

The Cost of Mistakes

Russia's summer disaster of 2010 is bound to have long-term consequences for its environment and economy. But does the same hold true for its politics?

Anyone, such as the Russian leadership, who refuses to share power with the people, sees democracy as an inconvenient encumbrance, arbitrarily intervenes in the market and trusts no one in his surroundings, is bound to keep making new mistakes. The cost of these mistakes, though, will rise with each new blunder.

And so the lies, cover-ups and manipulation will continue in Moscow. Nobody actually knows how many victims have succumbed to the fires and the smog over the past weeks. Hospital physicians have been banned from diagnosing "heatstroke" as a cause of death.

Just after the sky briefly turned blue late last week -- thanks to a northerly wind -- and the mood among Muscovites had slightly improved, the authorities tried to play down the wildfire disaster.

The Chernobyl forests are burning? "Don't spread any panic, everything is calm there," said a government official, as he dismissed Greenpeace reports. The Russian forestry service announced that all fires in the area around Moscow were "under control." The doctor who, only a few days earlier, had said that the daily number of deaths in the capital had doubled, also had to publicly tone down his statement.

Propagandistic Gimmicks

In order to put the people of Moscow at ease, residents were distracted with propagandistic gimmicks, just like in the good old days. For instance, top city officials instructed seven movie theaters in the capital to show free films during the midday heat and to hand out one bottle of mineral water -- 0.33 liters (11 fl. oz) -- to each filmgoer entering the building.

The government is acutely aware of the fact that the mood in the capital is decisive, and they have no qualms about keeping the population in the dark about anything that happens in the rest of the country -- even if it sometimes could scarcely be more dramatic.

On Aug. 4, for example, wildfires raged to within 200 meters (650 ft.) of the settlement of Leplei in the republic of Mordovia and threatened a number of prison camps, which were built in the surrounding forest during Stalin's reign. Some 15,000 inmates are currently held there. The Emergency Situations Ministry dispatched a special train to extinguish the flames, but the rails suddenly came to an end: Four years ago, the prison administration had dismantled the railway line leading to the camps -- and no one had noticed.

Russian newspapers also buried on their back pages the story that one of the country's largest chemical weapons storage facilities was threatened by the fires. The Maradykovo arsenal, established in 1941, is located in the village of Mirny in the Kirov region. It is here that Moscow stores aerial bombs filled with 6,900 tons of nerve gases like sarin and soman, which the military has been gradually destroying since 2006.

Did the blaze in a munitions factory outside Perm on Wednesday night also have something to do with the wildfires? There was a series of explosions at the facility, which has a long history, having produced explosives for the feared Katyusha rockets during World War II. Shortly beforehand, not far from Perm, a number of villages had burned down.

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