The tragedy of the southern Russian town of Krymsk and the surrounding villages stunned Russia. There is little doubt that the local authorities were not prepared for the flood that swept away hundreds of houses in a town populated by 60,000 people. The official death toll at the time of writing hovers slightly over 160, but the locals are talking about hundreds of dead, secretly moved out by tarpaulin-covered trucks. They also are convinced that it wasn’t the torrential rain that swept their belongings and the lives of their loved ones away but opening of the floodgates on the nearby Neberdzhayevskoye Reservoir. The reason in the locals’ view is evident: an attempt by authorities to save the nearby industrial complex owned by the state oil company Rosneft. They cite as proof the fact that a 5-7-meter high wave swept through residential areas at around midnight.
If it’s just the rivers overflowing where would the wave have come from? It could only happen from a sudden increase in the pressure of water released by the floodgates, Krymsk residents say.
What is clear at present is that there was no early warning system in place in the area despite the flood (of a lesser magnitude) that destroyed a lot of homes a decade or so ago. The local branch of the ministry of emergencies and the Krymsk mayor touchingly relied on text messages and TV-tickers to warn the population of impending disaster, instead of sending in cars equipped with public address systems. The late hour meant a lot of inhabitants were asleep. On top of this electricity grids failed before the flood so TV warnings were useless anyway.
The local governor, a long-time Kremlin appointee and trusted man, Alexander Tkachev, was defiant in claiming that the regional government did everything in its power to help. This added mightily to public discontent. The opposition as well as many journalists who flocked to the scene say that Tkachev should resign over the failure to prevent the disaster. This sounds like wishful thinking. Armed by Putin’s support (coming from Tkachev’s unquestioning loyalty to the Kremlin and his administration’s ability to “ensure” the right results during the parliamentary and presidential elections) doesn’t even bother to react to these calls. Moreover, the mayor of Krymsk hasn’t resigned either. The authorities are afraid that unscheduled elections in these circumstances would lead to an opposition candidate winning.
All this is yet more proof of Russia’s horrible societal predicament: governors and civil servants are chosen for their loyalty to the Kremlin and United Russia, not for their competence and abilities. The incompetence of the authorities breeds mistrust of the population and in turn creates a wall of crazy rumors and conspiracy theories that people tend to believe. It separates the rulers from the ruled. There is no proof that the Rosneft facility was in danger and that the authorities acted cynically to save it rather than the people, but the popular opinion has already ruled that this was the case.
But, paradoxically for most Westerners, this does not at all mean that come next elections, the pro-Kremlin United Russia – or governor Tkachev – will be kicked out. First, the ruling bureaucracy in most places in Russia learned how to deliver predictable election results very well. Second, there will be quite a lot of new construction for those who lost their homes, and compensations will be paid out (although not very significant ones). This will at least partially alleviate the grievances. Third, the deep pessimism about one’s ability to change anything through political action is deeply ingrained in the minds of many provincial Russians. This is actually what provides for the vast and as yet barely bridgeable chasm between Moscow, teeming with opposition feeling and conviction that life and politics in Russia could and will be transformed, and the rest of Russia where people just do not see an alternative to the Putin-era model of governance. The Kremlin is obviously doing everything in its power to keep things as they are and eliminate any hint of this potential alternative emerging. This will not change overnight. Moscow is bound to remain alone as the bastion of critical thinking in Russia for quite some time to come.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.