The Drought of Trust

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

However dissimilar various natural disasters might appear – be it an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, forest fire or a flood – they all share a number of striking similarities. First, even if anticipated, a disaster strikes in such a way that it impacts people’s lives in the most damaging and disruptive fashion. Second, there is always a loss of control over situation by the authorities, the severity of this power vacuum varying from a simple inability to promptly launch a relief effort to the total chaos accompanied by looting and violent crime. Finally, no matter how fast or slow the consequences of the disaster are being liquidated, there is a general sense among the population of being abandoned by their government. And then, the blaming game inevitably begins.

Take, for example, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States: it caused the deaths of more than 1,800 people and inflicted property damage to the tune of $81 billion. Although both the timing and location of Katrina’s landfall were known in advance, no one anticipated that the levee system in New Orleans, Louisiana, would fail under a sea wave and cause 80 percent of the city and surrounding parishes to be submerged for weeks. The government’s response to the hurricane was widely considered grossly inadequate, a sentiment exacerbated by constant public bickering between federal and local authorities over who was in charge. In particular, then-President George W. Bush became a popular target of criticism for his slow reaction to the crisis; it could be argued that the Katrina disaster inflicted such damage to Bush’s second term that his political reputation never recovered.

It will take a while to fully calculate the amount of destruction caused by the torrential flooding that struck the cities and towns of Russia’s Krasnodar Territory in the early hours of July 7. At least 172 people died, and this number will inevitably go up as the rescue operation continues. The cost of restoring roads, electric power systems and homes will obviously reach into the billions of rubles.

It will also take time to answer the perennial Russian question, “Who’s to blame?” Experts are largely unanimous in their opinion that what happened in the hardest-hit town of Krymsk (pop. 57,000) – when a 20-foot-high wave of water and mud from the mountains engulfed it in a matter of minutes – was a rare natural phenomenon that could not be prevented. But if the property loss could not have been avoided, the deaths of people could and should have been. It appears that the local authorities knew at least three hours in advance that a flood would hit Krymsk; yet, they did very little to alarm sleeping people about the incoming danger. Moreover, no attempts were made to organize the evacuation of the most vulnerable among the population: children, the elderly and the disabled.

The Krymsk tragedy leaves a more bitter taste because the town suffered a similar flash flood in 2002, causing about 100 deaths. It now appears that the regional authorities did nothing since that time to prevent future disasters, either by upgrading dilapidated irrigation systems or by establishing efficient communication channels. No wonder that the opposition in the State Duma is calling for the head of the Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev. However ill-timed, the call holds certain merits.

Additionally, the tragedy highlighted the lack of trust between residents and the authorities. Shortly after the flood, the prevailing public opinion in Krymsk was that the disaster was actually “man-made:” rumors began circulating that in order to save the all-important port city of Novorossiysk, the authorities “sacrificed” Krymsk by releasing excess water from a nearby reservoir. Many in Krymsk keep believing in this scenario despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

The Krasnodar flooding came at a precarious time for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Public opinion polls show that his once sky-high ratings are on a decline, which suggests a growing public mistrust in his ability to govern the country in the role of undisputed national leader. So far, no one has directly blamed Putin for what happened; yet his critics immediately pointed out that the day of mourning for the victims of the flood that Putin announced on July 9 was 16th such mourning day since he assumed power in 2000.

For his part, Putin seems to have done everything expected of him: he immediately visited the disaster region and promptly promised state funding for the recovery. But he could do more. As Russians of all political preferences have united in their efforts to help the victims of the flood – by sending food, goods, medicine and by volunteering on the spot – Putin could use this opportunity to begin a nationwide dialog with the society, including his fierce critics, on the problems facing the country. Of course, no dialog will stop a future flood from happening; but it might prevent a drought of trust.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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5 Responses to The Drought of Trust

  1. Dear Eugene,

    I have been fantastically busy over the last two weeks so I am afraid that I have simply not been able to keep up with your blog, for which apologies.

    There a few points in the post with which as I am sure you know we are not in agreement but rather than dwell on those and go over the same discussions we have previously had let me say again that the essential you are making, about the lack of trust in Russian society between the people and the authorities, is one I agree with. I suspect for historic reasons this is a deeply rooted, which any Russian government however it was constituted would face. Doubtless an investigation of the floods will expose the usual story of corruption and incompetence (though the subsequent relief operation seems to be well up to international standards, which is not to say it is either perfect or ideal) but this does not explain the willingness of people to believe some of the frankly fantastic stories that have been circulating

    This problem of a lack of a trust is one that really has to be confronted if Russian society is to progress. I will say straight away (and I know you will not agree with me) that political action will not solve it if only because the opposition with whom any dialogue would presumably be conducted seems to be even more mistrusted than the government.

    I am afraid the only way forward is through the long, hard grind of institutional building. Slow and unglamorous I know and unlikely to achieve quick or dramatic results but arguably the better for it. In fairness some progress has already been. I get the impression that the Constitutional and Supreme Courts are reasonably well respected amongst those few people who know or think about them. Bastrykhin and his new Investigative Committee seem to be turning out better than I for one expected though I am becoming concerned that he and it look in danger of becoming overworked. Remarkably the Emergencies Ministry also seems to be efficient and well respected. All of this is merely the foothills. The mountain is still to come.

    Going completely off topic onto a different though actually to a distantly related issue to the one we are discussing, I wonder whether you can help me with one particular point? On Mark Chapman’s blog we have been discussing the recent email correspondence that has been published between Navalny and Belykh. Since it is difficult to understand how Putin has allowed someone like Belykh (who he has repeatedly and publicly criticised) to remain a Governor I speculated that the reason might be that Belykh is actually a good and popular Governor. I was wondering whether from your encyclopaedic knowledge of the Russian political scene you have any information about this?

    • Dear Eugene,

      I am afraid my eyesight is particularly bad this evening. Apologies for the missed words in the above comment. If there is anything about it which is unclear please tell me.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      Thank you for your comments. In fact, as it often happens, we agree on more than we disagree about. And our disagreements are mostly “tactical.” I do like Lebedev of the Supreme Court, but am not a fan of the Constitutional Court’s Zor’kin. Yes, the Emergency Ministry works well, but as someone wittily noted, it’s ironic that the most efficient ministry in Russia is that for emergencies. Where I can’t agree with you is on the Investigative Committee. With organized crime in Russia flourishing, allocating 200 investigators on the case of May 6 is unforgivable. And Bastrykin’s conduct vis-a-vis the reporter from Novaya Gazeta should have led to his dismissal.

      I just want to point out that I didn’t suggest Putin’s dialog with the opposition; I was careful enough to talk about dialog “with the society.” Not the same thing obviously.

      As for Belykh, he was appointed by Medvedev. I suspect that back in 2009, Medvedev was still a “liberal” and was contemplating of creating a team of supporters of his own. Also, I heard that the agreement between Putin and Medvedev gave the latter broad responsibilities in appointing regional governors. So regardless of what Putin thought of Belykh, he had to go along. Is Belykh a good governor? I don’t know. It’s clear though that his administration is one of the cleanest, if not the cleanest, in the country. He practices open style of government, works with United Russia, meets often with people, open to media, etc. The problem is that the Kirov region is rather poor and not much can be done without huge infusions of federal money. If Belykh’s experience proves anything is that (paraphrasing Lenin) you can’t build a perfect capitalism in one single region, no matter how liberal the governor might be.

      Yes, Belykh was repeatedly criticized, but he never gave a reason for a harsh measure such as dismissal: there are certainly governors much worse than him. His term is up in 2013, and with the old system of governor appointment, I’m sure that Putin would never reappointed him. Now, with direct elections, however “filtered,” the situation remains interesting. Did I answer your question?

      Best,
      Eugene

    • Dear Eugene,

      Yes, you have answered my question about Belykh. It has been very helpful. It seems he is as good a Governor as it is possible to be in the circumstances and it is never reasonable to ask for more. I suspected something like that.

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