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.
"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
Amid the crisis, Prime Minister Putin has been front-and-center on evening TV news broadcasts, whipping officialdom into shape and reassuring the population. Late last week he was seen rushing to the hard-hit region of Nizhni Novgorod, where he pledged to rebuild every destroyed home "before year's end," threatened to fire lax local authorities, and ordered all officials to cancel weekend leisure plans for the duration of the emergency.
In one weekend news segment, Putin was shown talking by phone with President Dmitry Medvedev – who was apparently sitting in his office – and responding briskly to Mr. Medvedev's suggestion that compensation should be paid to bereaved families by saying, "We did that already."
Experts say that if there was ever any question about who actually rules Russia, Putin's emergence as the key figure in the fire-fighting effort may settle the matter. "Putin is managing this PR campaign in a very aggressive way, because he wants everybody – not just the elite – to know who is master in this house," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst. Medvedev looks too passive by comparison, he adds.
Putin for president?
For his part, Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven regions and tweeted his sympathy for afflicted Russians, calling the crisis "a terrible tragedy" on the Kremlin's Twitter page. Medvedev has also posted items about the fires on his official blog, but the audience for this is far below that of nightly TV news broadcasts.
"It may be that Medvedev, by distancing himself from the disaster, may suffer minimal losses to his image," says Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the independent International Institute of Political Expertise in Moscow. "Putin clearly bears the blame, unless he can find a highly placed scapegoat to pin it all on, that is."
Most experts say Putin also emerged the winner in the summer's other scandal, the expulsion and exchange of 10 alleged Russian spies from the US. Many now think it all but certain that, when the next presidential polls roll around in 2012, the one and only establishment candidate will be Putin.
"It now looks like the most logical development is that Putin will return as president," says Mr. Petrov. "Nobody is likely to ask Medvedev what he wants."