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Response To Disastrous Flood Ignites Russian Rage Online
Originally published on Wed July 18, 2012 11:54 am
Russians are slowly beginning to recover from the devastating flooding that soaked the southwestern region of Krasnodar. The floods, which struck in the early morning hours on July 7, reportedly killed more than 150 people.
It wasn't long before outrage flowed. Masha Lipman, a researcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, says the government had advance notice of the disaster, but didn't pass along the message.
"The flood hit at night and the government had been alerted to the risk of the flood around maybe 10 p.m.," she tells NPR's David Greene.
"The water began to rise dramatically at around 1 in the morning, and this continued through 3 o'clock in the morning. And yet, there was barely any warning whatsoever."
Pavel Konstantinov of the Moscow State University's geography faculty tells the Voice of Russia that the climate in some western areas, like Glendzhik, are generally dry.
"Nearly six times the average monthly rain fell in Gelendzhik in 24 hours, slightly less than 300mm [about 11 inches]," he said.
News about the flood — and the government's response — exploded online. In one video Lipman mentions, the region's governor, Alexksandr Tkachev, met with a crowd of flood survivors. She says Tkachev told the distressed people, "Do you think we should have gotten to each one of you?"
As The New York Times reports, the Internet has also helped coordinate volunteers for disaster relief for the particularly hard-hit city of Krymsk. The paper says young people "have arrived along with food trucks full of private donations in a city that was not expecting them."
The real-time connection is a sharp contrast to the past, the Times says.
"This activism heralds a jarring change in a country that, throughout the Soviet period, approached disaster response as a military matter and was able to insist on secrecy. When a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl in 1986, for instance, Soviet citizens heard nothing at all about it for three days, and foreign governments did not know until a radioactive cloud was detected over Sweden."
Social media was also a hallmark of the anti-government demonstrations at the end of last year. As NPR's Jackie Northam reported in January:
"Russia's largest anti-government demonstrations since the Soviet breakup of 1991 are being organized and driven by a force that didn't exist two decades ago: social media."
President Vladimir Putin has been a key target of criticism, including after the flooding. Unlike the region's governor, Putin did not meet with any survivors, Lipman says.
"He flew over the region to get an impression of what it looks like after the flood," she says. "He met with officials, but not with the people."
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then-President George W. Bush was heavily criticized for flying over devastated New Orleans without actually going on the ground. Lipman finds similarities between Russia's floods and the hurricane.
"There are certainly things that are similar," she says. "The grievances, the accusations of the authorities, of the lack of coordination, of mismanagement, of failing to do the engineering works in the past required for keeping the place safe."
Al-Jazeera reported Monday that the president "has ordered investigators to find out if enough was done to prevent so many people being killed."
Despite the anger Russians have been expressing over the past week, Lipman says to remember that "in Russia, we still have controlled politics."
Putin may be losing popularity, she says, but "still, he's got full control over the legislature, he has control over law enforcement, over courts. So his waning popularity is something that is a slow-going process.
"The outrage over the floods and the mismanagement and the inefficiency will contribute to the process, but it will not have a definitive effect. Not right now."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Throughout the past week, shock and anger have mounted in Russia directed at Vladimir Putin's government. A week ago, floodwaters up to 10 feet high engulfed the sleeping town of Krymsk, drowning people as they were sleeping. A few days later, news broke that the government knew that such a tragedy was likely hours before it struck and they did nothing. For more on the public reaction to this disaster and its aftermath, I'm joined by Masha Lipman at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. Masha, hello.
MASHA LIPMAN: Hello.
GREENE: You know, one thing that's been fascinating about Russian society is that social networking, the Internet has really been exploding. And we saw that at the end of last year and beginning of this year with the anti-government protests. Was that a factor here? I mean, were people learning very quickly about the government's lack of response to this through social networking sites, etc.?
LIPMAN: Absolutely. The news of the flood, the images of - the meeting between the governor and the crowd of survivors was immediately all over. You could see the video, you could hear the governor, all the regions, who, by the way, in response to distress and outraged people did ask do you think we should have gotten to each one of you? What is noteworthy is that Putin did not meet with a crowd of survivors. He actually flew to the region. He flew over the region to get an impression of what it looked like after the flood. He met with the officials but not with the people.
GREENE: In some prior tragedies, like the fires from a couple of years ago, Putin was actually able to use the media to his benefit to help his image. I mean, he had cameras set up with rebuilding houses that were destroyed by fire. And he was able to say I'm monitoring the progress with this footage. Does Putin still have the media at his disposal?
LIPMAN: He has television at his disposal. And, of course, reports on television are very different from the kind of reports that you can read on the Web, that you can listen on the radio. This realm of the Web has grown, no doubt about that. However, the realm controlled by Putin is still much, much larger.
GREENE: It's amazing - you say he flew over the region, and that brings to my mind to the famous image of President George W. Bush flying over New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina struck. And he, of course, got punished in the media and politically for that image. I mean, what similarities, what differences do you see between that tragedy in the United States and these floods in Russia?
LIPMAN: There are certainly think that are similar. The grievances, the accusations of the authorities, of the lack of coordination, of mismanagement, of failing to do the engineering work in the past required for keeping the place safe. Floods are common. Floods happen almost every year in the region. It's just this one was worse. It should be remembered that in Russia we still have control politics. Putin, at this point in time, even though he has lost some of his popularity, some of his images fully uncontested, unchallenged, father of the nation, what have you, still he's got full control over the legislature. He has control over law enforcement, over courts. So, his waning popularity is something that is a slow-going process. The outrage over the flood and the mismanagement and the inefficiency will contribute to the process. But it will not have a definitive (unintelligible), not right now.
GREENE: That's Masha Lipman from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. Masha, thanks so much for talking to us.
LIPMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.