On July 6, floods swept through the western parts of Krasnodar region on Russia’s Black Sea coast, killing at least 160 people and leaving tens of thousands more without homes. Most of those killed were in the town of Krymsk, which has a population of about 60,000. The flood also affected the two port cities of Novorossiysk and Gelendzhik, where several people were also killed. The material damage caused by the flooding is estimated at over $100 million (http://ria.ru/society/20120709/695476442.html).
The government’s poor handling of the situation and the widespread distrust of the authorities’ actions has raised questions about the Russian government’s preparedness for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in the city of Sochi, located on the Black Sea coast near the site of the floods. The natural disaster has also raised important questions about the Russian political system, under which government officials take little responsibility for what happens to citizens. The Krasnodar region’s long-time governor, Aleksandr Tkachyov, has been harshly criticized for mishandling the disaster, but is believed to enjoy President Vladimir Putin’s unwavering support.
Meteorologists say they warned the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry’s region branch of the impending storm in the mountains that surround Krymsk four hours in advance. However, survivors of the flood say they received no prior warnings and encountered the rising waters at 2-3 a.m. on July 6. Rivers in the mountains along Krasnodar’s Black Sea coast quickly accumulate rain water and rise. In Krymsk, the flood waters reportedly reached five meters (16 feet) high within hours (http://www.gazeta.ru/social/2012/07/09/4675249.shtml).
Bloggers’ estimates of the number of people killed in the flooding dramatically differ from the government figures. Krymsk district also experienced a flood in 2002: at that time, 60 people were officially pronounced dead, while “semi-official” figures put the number of those killed at about 250 people, and some observers even claimed that about 1,000 persons were killed (http://piter.tv/event/blogeri_vlasti_zanizhayut/). In the latest flooding, the Krasnodar regional administration said on July 9 that the floods had killed 158 people (http://ria.ru/society/20120709/695476442.html). That same day, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry reported that 171 people had died in the flooding (http://www.gazeta.ru/social/news/2012/07/09/n_2428073.shtml). On July 10, the Russian Investigative Committee put the number of those killed in the floods at 162 (http://sledcom.ru/news/131818.html). The LifeNews website had claimed back on July 7 that around 200 people had died in the floods (http://lifenews.ru/news/96499). The well-known Russian writer and Novaya Gazeta journalist, Dmitry Bykov, reported from Krymsk: “Absolutely none of them [Krymsk residents] believes either the official [casualty] figures or the official causes of the disaster” (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/society/53420.html, July 9).
Indeed, a conspiracy theory apparently spread among the locals that officials had emptied the Nebedzhaevskoe reservoir up in the mountains to divert flood waters from reaching wealthy development sites in the nearby city of Novorossiysk. This version took hold among so many people in Russia that President Putin felt compelled to publicly refute it (http://piter.tv/event/blogeri_vlasti_zanizhayut/). Putin has close links to Krasnodar region. He is alleged to own a splendid palace in the vicinity of the city of Gelendzhik (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/politics/7109.html). More importantly, he is a strong proponent of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.
The Krasnodar region is one of the largest Russian regions, with a population of more than five million, 90 percent of whom are either ethnic Russians or belong to other Slavic ethnicities. It is also the largest Russian region with an ethnic Russian majority that is adjacent to the republics of the North Caucasus. Krasnodar has strong Russian nationalist groups and may be seen by some Russian politicians as the “Russian frontline” holding back the booming population in several North Caucasus republics. The situation in this region has multiple implications for Russian state policies because of its size, geographic proximity to the North Caucasus and hosting of politically important projects, such as the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Governor Tkachyov is an important, perhaps even a key figure in the Kremlin’s plans for the Sochi Olympics and other projects. He has the reputation of being a Russian nationalist and has been in power in the region since 2000, even amid a series of crises that hit his region during Tkachyov’s rule. Dozens of people died in the 2002 flooding in Krasnodar. In 2007, 63 people died in a fire in a home for the elderly. In 2010, an organized criminal group was uncovered in the village of Kushevka village that had killed a dozen people and terrorized an entire district in Krasnodar. According to some accounts, the leaders of the criminal group were linked to Tkachyov. In a commentary, the Gazeta.ru website said that all these scandals were enough to dismiss a governor “even in Russia, where too many politicians get away with everything.” Yet the governor invariably withstood all those crises and would likely go unharmed this time as well, according to Gazeta.ru. “Tkachyov’s durability is the direct result of the system built in Russia, where all authorities are subordinate to one person and are completely independent of the population,” it wrote. “Putin likes Tkachyov.” Apart from the personal bond between Tkachyov and Putin, the system of political power in Krasnodar region replicates that in Russia in miniature, so if Tkachyov were to go, it would significantly shake the region’s system of governance. Perhaps that is why Tkachyov was hurriedly reappointed to another five-year term as Krasnodar region’s governor in March 2012 in order to avoid having to hold elections there in the fall of 2012 (http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2012/07/09_e_4674881.shtml). If Tkachyov were to step down or be dismissed under popular pressure, it would represent a serious blow to Putin’s power. However, at this point, most Russian analysts are not predicting such a dramatic course of events. Only the head of the Krymsk district has been dismissed so far, but even the mayor of the city of Krymsk remains in power, and no other important political figures are expected to go (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2012/07/10_a_4676145.shtml).
The Krasnodar government’s unimpressive handling of the floods and the corresponding perceptions of the local population vividly show a close relationship between the government’s performance and its accountability in the eyes of the public. The question now remains as to how this will affect the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.