20 years under Putin: a timeline

In Russia, nobody is prepared for natural disasters; the population gets no warning; the authorities cannot acknowledge the extent of the catastrophe and assume political responsibility, since that could have a negative impact on their poll standings. This is exactly what is happening in Russia’s Far East, where hundreds of thousands of people are affected by floods. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the Russian authorities’ reactions to the natural disaster.



The catastrophic flood situation in Russia’s Far East and the Chelyabinsk region has been continuing to worsen over the past month. According to the Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Disaster Relief (EMERCOM), the disaster area extends more than two thousand kilometers from west to east. The damage caused by the elements has not yet been evaluated, but the authorities call it “colossal.” Deputy presidential envoy to the Far East Vladimir Pysin already declared that the overall damage is currently estimated at 30 billion rubles ($1 billion). During a meeting of the Government Commission on Prevention and Response to Emergencies, the official acknowledged that 190 settlements with more than 9,000 buildings were affected in three regions in Russia’s Far East: the Amur Region, the Khabarovsk Territory, and the Jewish Autonomous Region.

In Russia, a catastrophe that is a tragedy for some provides others with opportunities to promote their interests or ideas. For example, rumors have appeared in the media that Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu has suggested to Putin the idea of a merge between the Defense Ministry and EMERCOM. This would mean that EMERCOM, which used to be headed by Shoygu, would be absorbed by the Defense Ministry. Joint relief operations by rescuers and the army in disaster-hit areas served as a pretext for promoting this idea. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the decision on this issue could be made after the army and rescuers’ relief operations have been assessed for effectiveness. If the merge goes through, EMERCOM’s executive office will be downsized and transformed into the Defense Ministry’s department. The main structural subdivisions of EMERCOM, such as fire-fighting units, will still exist in the regions; however, they will keep in close contact with the military. As for the army, it will receive new responsibilities related to natural disasters. Civil defense units will be strengthened, mostly because of the redistribution of duties, which will be vested in the armed forces.

In Russia, a catastrophe that is a tragedy for some provides others with opportunities to promote their interests or ideas.

Over the course of the flooding, Shoygu has become the de facto director of operations aimed at managing the situation. EMERCOM still remains under his informal patronage: the agency is headed by Vladimir Puchkov, Shoygu’s longtime ally. The fact that Putin discussed relief measures in Far Eastern regions with Shoygu speaks for itself. As head of EMERCOM, Shoygu used to actively oppose the efforts of the Defense Ministry to deprive his agency of independence: the preservation of autonomy is a traditional bureaucratic interest. However, under the current political conditions, the integration of EMERCOM with the Defense Ministry would probably go very smoothly. Especially considering that Shoygu used EMERCOM as a base that helped to considerably increase his popularity in the country.

The flooding presents a convenient opportunity to create a mega-ministry, with Shoygu as its head. And Shoygu, as is well known, is considered an informal contender for the role of Vladimir Putin’s successor.

Igor Sechin, president of the Rosneft oil company, is another potential beneficiary of the floods. After leaving the post of deputy prime minister in charge of the fuel and energy complex, Sechin continued acting as the de facto supervisor of the Russian energy sector and electric power and hydropower industries. He continues participating in presidential meetings and directly influences the development of energy industries. In late August, Vladimir Putin held a meeting at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power plant, where one of the biggest man-made disasters broke out four years ago. Seventy-five people died then. Sechin, who headed the plant’s commission on accident management after the tragedy, remained at this post after he had left the government—an act that knows no precedent. Thus, the head of one of Russia’s largest oil companies became an official participant in presidential meetings, possessing a greater influence than that of the entire cabinet.

Sechin is pursuing a rather concrete interest. After Putin’s return to the presidency, he wanted to build an energy empire under the auspices of Rosneftegaz, the board of directors of which he chaired. There were plans to consolidate the assets of the hydropower and electric power industries under Rosneftegaz. However, in late 2012, Sechin lost his battle for control over RusHydro. He wanted to recapitalize the company under this scheme, according to which Rosneftegaz was supposed to acquire a stake in RusHydro. Dmitri Medvedev’s government, however, opposed the plan, and the scheme was blocked.

Now, in the context of flooding, it is convenient to talk about the efficiency of hydropower stations, as well as about the necessity of building new facilities and increasing the efficiency of the management of Russia’s hydropower industry. And Sechin was right on the spot. As a primary speaker during Putin’s August meeting on developing the electricity sector in Siberia and the Far East, Sechin became the key figure in carrying out state policy in the energy sector. According to Putin, in order to avoid major flooding in the future, a system of regulating water resources should be established in the Far East and, if necessary, new hydroelectric power stations should be built. “It is clear that a range of systemic measures and solutions has to be worked out and implemented. These measures envision a new system to regulate the water resources of the whole region,” the president said. RusHydro’s request for an allocation of 100 billion rubles ($3 billion) from the state pension funds to be put toward the construction of hydropower stations in the Far East could not have come at a better time. When asking for something, choosing the right timing is critical.


Sergei Shoygu (left) and Igor Sechin are trying to use the natural disaster to advance their own interests.


At the same time, the authorities are trying to minimize negative political consequences of the flooding. The population’s discontent in disaster-hit areas is growing. Vladimir Putin has announced plans to slow the growth of tariffs on electric energy in Far Eastern regions. The Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare called on banks to waive debts owed by those affected by floods. This, however, came as a reaction to attempts by a number of credit organizations to demand early repayment of debts. Pictures and videos depicting the catastrophic situation in disaster-hit areas are beginning to appear on Internet forums and social networks. Actor Gosha Kutsenko, who came to the region to offer help, said, “Nobody has ever saved the tens of thousands of people who are sitting on huge territories. This is a real social catastrophe. This is a time bomb. In Krymsk people suffered, died, and because of that everyone responded quickly, everyone caught fire, joined in and helped; here, however, there are no obvious victims yet, but there might be. Cold weather is coming, and people there are sitting in water! And their houses will not dry. It is already getting cold, and in October it will get very cold. Buildings, however, will still be damp by October. Not to mention the silt that will settle there.”

In regions hit by the disaster, cases of marauding are becoming more frequent; a ban on selling alcohol was introduced; and prison colonies and prisons were put under special control, as well as “other persons prone to theft of property.” “The situation has deteriorated considerably in the last two days. Water has flooded animal burial sites, including the ones with anthrax. It has already gotten into the water. To that, one can add a great number of flooded feces and waste pits... All that rises to the surface. That is why people actively began getting vaccinated. They try not to use water from reservoirs; you cannot even give it to animals. Everyone hopes that the water will subside and there will be no further contamination of the territory,” journalist Alexei Kozlov, who is now in Khabarovsk, told the Ukrainian newspaper Segodnya.

The authorities not only fail to fulfill their own responsibilities, but also prevent others from doing anything.

The response of the federal authorities has been slow coming. More than a month after the flooding began, Vladimir Putin spoke about the necessity of creating a governmental commission for preventing and managing the consequences of river flooding and other types of floods in the Far East. It took the head of state almost a week to get ready for his trip to Khabarovsk. As a result, he arrived there accompanied by members of the government who, prior to this, were preoccupied by problems of lower priority. While people are saving themselves by climbing on the roofs of their houses, Medvedev is complaining about floods in the Far East destroying almost half of the region’s crops. Russia’s grain crop forecasts were lowered to 90 million tons. He demanded that fairly priced provisions be supplied to flooded regions in the Far East and called on agrarians to more actively insure their crops against seasonal risks.

It is noteworthy that the country’s volunteer movement turned out to be less energetic this year. This is probably in part due to the Kremlin’s negative reaction to the efforts of volunteers last year in Krymsk, where unprecedented floods had taken place. A new bill in the State Duma, which will be considered during the autumn session, requires volunteers to make written contracts with legal organizations. Thus, without such a contract, any volunteer would be violating the law. Also, volunteer camps in Krymsk were subjected to considerable scrutiny by the authorities. EMERCOM complained of disorderly conduct, and law enforcement bodies arrested volunteers for spreading allegedly false rumors about the disaster. Such an approach threatens to turn any offer of help into a cognizable offence.

Often, the authorities not only fail to fulfill their own responsibilities, but also prevent others from doing anything: any demonstration of civic activity, even when it is directed at protecting people’s lives and health, is seen as a challenge to the authorities. It seems more important for the government to neutralize any social and political consequences of a natural disaster than to carry out its direct duties related to disaster mitigation and relief. The flooding in the Far East represents a major test of the government, since such situations expose the limits of its competence.