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As Russia wildfires rage, Putin shows strength, Medvedev tweets

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has taken center stage on the Russia wildfires that have ruined at least 20 percent of Russia's grain crop. President Medvedev is struggling to stay in control.

By Corresponent / August 3, 2010

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a conference call Monday on recent forest fires.

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

The deadly Russia wildfires that are sweeping across the country, amid that country's most ferocious heatwave in recorded history, may also be changing the political landscape as former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vaults to center stage as the country's most decisive and effective leader.

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"This crisis has presented [Mr. Putin] with a great opportunity to show himself on TV and pose as master of the situation, and he has done just that," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"In the past few days, Putin has rushed from place to place and been seen on TV taking firm actions," he says. "Putin shows that he can soothe angry citizens with promises of assistance, place the blame on local officials, and in general look like a savior."

That's despite Putin himself bearing the brunt of responsibility for Russia's lack of preparedness for the fires, according to a scathing article in the Moscow business newspaper Vedemosti. It points out that Putin abolished the state forestry service three years ago, and scaled back state funding for fire prevention measures. According to the paper, Russia currently spends about 4 cents per hectare of forest lands on fire fighting services, compared with about $4 in the US.

Dozens killed, crops ruined

As of Tuesday, the government said 529 major blazes were raging across central Russia, including what the official meteorological service described as a "fiery ring" of 90 suburban peat bog fires encircling Moscow, which has left the capital city choking in a thick – and hazardous – haze of smoke.

Uncontrollable grass, brush, and forest fires have swept through Russia's heartland, killing at least 40 people, leaving thousands homeless, and hitting the bone-dry grassy steppes of the Volga region especially hard. For more than a month, European Russia has been experiencing daily temperatures that are 10 to 15 degrees C above the historic average of about 23 degrees C (73.4 degrees F.). for this time of year. Most of central Russia has received far less than a third of normal rainfall during the same period.

The worst drought in half a century has already ruined at least 20 percent of Russia's grain crop, which means the crisis is likely to keep on delivering misery to Russians – in the form of soaring food prices – through the coming winter.

According to the meteorological service, temperatures will continue to spike up to 40 degrees C (104 degrees F.) over the coming week, though there could be some respite in the form of desperately needed thunder showers. Promises of precipitation over recent weeks have yielded only a few light smatterings of actual rain.

Putin takes center stage

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