Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with residents of the village of Kriusha, where 54 houses burned to the ground in a forest fire, Ryazan region, 111 miles southeast of Moscow, Tuesday. Putin has been a very visible leader in the battle against the fires, which have caused billions of dollars in damage and left thousands homeless in the past two weeks.

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.'

The cloud of toxic smog that has blanketed Moscow for weeks lifted dramatically on Wednesday, but environmental experts point out that much of Russia is still aflame. And they warn there is a new threat of radioactive smoke from forest fires raging near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

Some experts worry that clearing air over Moscow will trigger a rapid drop in official interest in the very real emergency that's still gripping large parts of Russia, and they say it does not bode well for long-term cleanup and prevention prospects.

"It seems like Russian politics is based on one single calculus: How does this affect Moscow?" says Vladimir Slivyak, cochair of Ecodefense, a Moscow-based grassroots environmental group. "They're already saying it was just a once-in-a-thousand-year accident, and declaring that it's over. But it's not over."

IN PICTURES: Russia's fires

On Tuesday, the environmental group Greenpeace Russia published a map based on satellite images, that shows wildfires still spreading across wide regions of southwest Russia, including six provinces that were heavily contaminated by long-lasting radioactive fallout during the disaster 24 years ago.

Russian officials have denied the existence of the fires, and Russia's chief medical officer Gennady Onishenko accused Greenpeace of "panic-mongering," but the organization insists that its conclusion is based on solid evidence and official sources.

Russia's state forestry service, Roslesozashchita, admitted in a statement posted on its website Wednesday that, as of Aug. 6, there were 28 forest fires covering about 270 hectares burning in the Bryansk region alone, which is considered the most radioactively contaminated part of Russia.

"We're not talking about a repeat of the Chernobyl catastrophe, but the danger is not insignificant either," says Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's energy program. "The worst scenario is the continuing spread of radioactive particles through the area. The danger is first of all to firefighters and local people, but the contamination can spread with smoke to new areas."

When the Chernobyl reactor melted down, the resulting steam explosion poured atomic radiation equal to 100 Hiroshima bombs into the air, much of which settled on surrounding regions of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Though the immediate Chernobyl zone is not currently menaced, environmentalists say dozens of fires have spread around contaminated Russian regions, including Bryansk, Kaluga, Tula, Oryol, and Ryazan.

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.

"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.

IN PICTURES: Russia's fires

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