Two years ago, Russian tanks stopped on the outskirts of Tbilisi before slowly rolling back to the devastated Tskhinvali, but nobody in Russia appears interested in celebrating or even reflecting on that “victory,” which is still broadly approved by public opinion (www.levada.ru, August 4). Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, insisted during a press conference that “our peace efforts were entirely justified” and even revealed that his Western counterparts in private talks “recognize both the act of aggression and the validity of our response.” His short visit to Abkhazia on Sunday was so secretive that it can hardly qualify as a morale-boosting ceremony. Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was even more business-like, receiving a report from his deputy, Igor Shuvalov, who had inspected reconstruction projects in South Ossetia. The work is bedeviled by corruption-caused delays, but Shuvalov achieved little by complaining about the crooks, so his report to Putin was presented in the “fine-and-improving” style (Kommersant, August 6; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 4).
This lack of interest can largely be explained by the preoccupation on truly burning problems: Russia, for the second week, is struggling to contain hundreds of forest fires, which have claimed more than 50 lives. August is often an unlucky month in Russia, but this year the disaster arrived in July with the record-high temperatures, so the risk of fires was predictable –but they have still caught the authorities unprepared. Moscow is so filled with smoke from the smoldering peat-bogs that foreign embassies have started evacuating their personnel (www.gazeta.ru, August 7). There is hardly any doubt that the natural causes of this calamity are aggravated by the gross mismanagement and the sustained neglect of the basic needs of hundreds of poor villages by the self-serving bureaucracy (Novaya Gazeta, August 5).
Both Medvedev and Putin are trying to demonstrate priority attention to the task of fire fighting, and even to score some extra PR-points by showing the efficiency of their control (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, 5 August). Putin opted for tackling the problem hands-on and visited several burned out villages, seeking to reassure the shocked inhabitants with his generous promises of financial aid and praising the efforts of under-equipped and exhausted fire-fighters as heroism on a par with the defense against the Teutonic knights (Vedomosti, August 3). He even responded to a message from an angry blogger, but this exchange has acquired a rather unexpected resonance.
The identity of “top_lap” remains unknown, but his message (rude by Russian standards) was clear: the bureaucracy has robbed the Russian village, so that even rynda (the alarm-bell) was taken away and replaced by a telephone that does not work. Ekho Moskvy delivered this message to Putin, who complimented his frank and colorful style and promised that the governor of Tver oblast would return the rynda (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 6). The blog received hundreds of comments and the term rynda has entered the Russian political vocabulary as a synonym for outrage against bureaucratic arrogance and ineptitude (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vedomosti, August 6). One strong impression that has emerged from all the furor in the blogosphere is that Putin does not really control his bureaucratic machine, and has no explanation for the purpose of high-tech “modernization” in a country where the basic infrastructure is falling apart (Ekho Moskvy, August 5).
Neither can he provide a straight answer to the blogger’s question “Where is our money?” Putin’s best method of deflecting the accusations in wasting the petro-prosperity is targeted generosity towards pensioners, but it results in accumulating problems for the pension fund (Vedomosti, 30 July). The widespread perception that the state coffers are shrinking may exceed the real deficit of the state budget, but it adds to the reluctance to celebrate the “victory” over Georgia. Russia’s two “trophies” of the war –Abkhazia and South Ossetia– are seen as a drain on its resources, and Putin confirmed at the meeting with Shuvalov that direct budget expenditures on the latter would increase from 4.7 billion rubles ($158 million) this year to 6.8 billion ($228 million) in 2011, which is more than the 5 billion rubles emergency transfer to the regions affected by fires (RIA Novosti, July 30). The whole North Caucasus is smoldering from the spreading criminal clan wars and escalating terrorism, and Moscow cannot extinguish this instability by pouring out money, which is in short supply.
There is, however, one additional reason for the lack of interest in the victorious war –which is the changing attitude in Russian society towards the army and the usefulness of military force more in general. There is, certainly, a deep-rooted militaristic tradition, but a sequence of inglorious wars from Afghanistan to Chechnya has weakened it, and strengthened the perception that the prioritized expenditures on modernizing the armed forces are simply a waste of money (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 6). Military reform is not going well, but nobody is paying attention to the continuing reshuffling of the top brass, which forced into retirement most of the “heroes” of the Georgian war (Kommersant, August 7). Indeed, the only presidential punishment for the poor preparedness against the fire emergency was the dismissal of several high-level officers in the navy, due to the destruction of a storage facility outside Moscow (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 6). This strengthened the impression that the army cannot provide any help in fire-fighting because it is unable to protect even its own bases.
The diminishing public respect for the military, which cannot provide security, goes hand in hand with the deepening alienation between society and the political class, which feels no responsibility for answering the needs of “commoners.” Putin is trying to bridge this gap by taking personal control over the execution of specific orders, even by installing special video-cameras on the sites of burned-out villages, but he cannot escape from the economic structure where his bureaucrats will steal funds earmarked for reconstruction. Medvedev is even less convincing in trying to imitate control over the emergency situation, which gradually stabilizes as the area of dry forests shrinks. His pretence at leadership results mostly in compromising the institution of the presidency, so Putin would find the supreme power much diminished, if he opts for reclaiming it in 2012, as most observers expect. The lack of any alternative remains the only solid political pillar of the regime, but its masters can hardly avoid wondering for whom the rynda tolls.