Radioactive smoke? Russia wildfires rage near Chernobyl
Greenpeace says Russia wildfires are spreading across six provinces that were heavily contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. One Russian official accused Greenpeace of 'panic-mongering.'
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Official suppression of information
Some add that they are almost as worried about the official wall of denial as they are by the dangers posed by the ongoing fires.Skip to next paragraph
"Our authorities have reacted to this in much the same way Soviet leaders did when Chernobyl erupted: They suppressed the truth and just kept repeating that there is no problem," says Mr. Slivyak. "When I heard (chief medical officer) Onishenko say, 'Everything's OK' in the affected regions, it just took me back to Soviet times. We have plenty of evidence that it's not all OK. This is not the way to deal with bad news."
For weeks Russian officials also played down the dangers of the toxic haze that settled over Moscow, offering citizens little more than empty reassurances, say critics.
"In an eerie way, bureaucrats issued standard, sterile phrases that citizens should protect themselves from the smog by wearing face masks that are saturated with water, avoid jogging in the morning, and to stay home," said an editorial in the Moscow business daily Vedomosti on Wednesday. "Perhaps the calmest of all Moscow officials was Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who spent most of the smog-filled days on vacation in Europe, although he swears that he was in full control of the situation."
Putin takes charge
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took a different tack, rushing from one stricken place to the next, and holding heavily-televised meetings in which he dramatically upbraided lax local officials and promised rapid and generous state assistance for the fire victims.
On Tuesday, Mr. Putin literally took to the air, as copilot of a Be-200 amphibious fire-fighting aircraft (see video here) that scooped water from a lake and dropped it onto two forest fires.
"This is Putin's personal style, he likes to show that he's everywhere, that he can do anything," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow." And all indications show that this works. Russians feel reassured to have such a leader, and they miss Putin as president. You can see it in their eyes."
In the past decade Putin has been shown on TV taking the controls of a nuclear submarine, flying in an Su-25 fighter plane and co-piloting a Tu-160 supersonic bomber.
But a spate of recent public opinion polls suggest that the heat wave and its fallout may have exacted a political toll on all Russian leaders, including Putin.
A survey released this week by the state-run VTsIOM agency showed President Dmitry Medvedev's approval rating dipping from 44 percent in January to 39 percent in August; Putin's fell from 53 percent to 47 percent in the same period.
Another poll, by the state-connected Public Opinion Foundation, found Mr. Medvedev plunged from 62 percent to 52 percent in the past 8 months. In the same time, Putin's popularity slumped from 69 percent to 61 percent, one of his worst showings ever.