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Families of victims of Russia’s mall fire are angry. What does this mean for Putin’s power?

- March 29, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to locals and relatives of the victims of a fire in a multistory shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia, on Tuesday. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AP)

On March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin won reelection with 77 percent of the vote at 67 percent turnout. A week later, angry crowds in Kemerovo, site of the tragic fire at the Winter Cherry mall, chanted for the region’s governor, Aman Tuleyev, to resign, but also demanded that Putin appear. “Where’s the king? They just reelected him, why doesn’t he come out?” shouted one man.

Putin has now been at the helm, either as president or prime minister, since late 1999, and his “power vertical” has recentralized government control to a large degree.

But the protests at the local level highlight weak spots in Putin’s recentralized regime. For most Russians, writes Mischa Gabowitsch, “ ‘vlast’ [authority] is not Putin, nor the Duma, nor the Presidential Administration. Vlast that most people encounter is local.” Provincial authorities in Russia, though, are increasingly alienated from the populates they govern.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/02/24/the-kremlin-and-russias-regional-governments-are-at-odds-thats-a-problem-for-putin/?utm_term=.4dfecadcbe0d”]The Kremlin and Russia’s regional governments are at odds. That’s a problem for Putin.[/interstitial_link]

Angry protests after the Winter Cherry fire disaster

On Sunday, a horrific fire at Kemerovo’s Winter Cherry mall killed more than 60 people, including many children, who found themselves locked in a movie theater as flames engulfed the building.

A week ago, this Siberian city would have seemed an unlikely point of instability for Putin’s power vertical, with 85 percent of voters backing the president on March 18. Monday’s protests, however, suggest a deep disconnect between politicians and the populace. The government’s reaction to a tragic fire — and subsequent protests — in Kemerovo has exposed cracks at the local level.

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Tensions were high from the start. One father who lost three young girls told Meduza, “I told [the firefighters]: ‘Give me one of your masks! I’ll pull them out myself!’ But they told me: ‘Can’t do it. Everything has to be according to regulations.’ My girls were left to burn because of the […] regulations..”

On Monday, thousands gathered on Kemerovo’s central square to demand answers and information. Local citizens grew angrier as they learned that Putin had arrived in the city — not to address the grieving crowd, but to lay flowers at a memorial to the victims, which had quite noticeably been cleared of people for the president’s visit.

The government’s response to the protests reveals the logic of Russia’s politics. Tuleyev, the governor, apologized — to Putin, rather than to the grieving families: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, you personally called me. Once again, thank you very much. I beg for your personal forgiveness for what happened in our region.” Tuleyev called the protesters “representatives of opposition forces.” His deputy accused one man, who had lost his entire family in the fire, of “self-promoting through the tragedy.”

National politicians also seized the opportunity to prostrate themselves before Putin. On Rossiya 1, Federation Council member Yelena Mizulina offered her support — not to Kemerovo, but to Putin: “He’s doing incredible things today for Russia, defending Russia on the foreign stage, and carrying out incredibly powerful reforms at home. … And suddenly — such bungling! It’s a stab in the back!”

Amid the public outcry, the Kremlin reportedly delayed existing plans to replace Tuleyev, who has ruled Kemerovo since 1997. Putin, a source told Russian news outlet RBC, “does not like to make decisions under pressure” and would not want Russian citizens to think that the public mood had forced his hand.

Tensions over landfill gases

The Winter Cherry outrage is not an isolated incident. In Volokolamsk, a town of about 20,000 residents 60 miles west of Moscow, protests have been simmering for months. Residents claim that emissions from a landfill have poisoned dozens of schoolchildren. Last week, nearly 70 schoolchildren in the town sought medical attention due to suspected gas poisoning.

When the Volokolamsk district head Evgeny Gavrilov and the regional governor, Andrey Vorobyov, arrived at the hospital to visit the children, an angry crowd shouted, “You’re murderers!” and demanded that the officials resign. Locals pelted Gavrilov and Vorobyov with snowballs, and many throughout Russia clicked to see videos of a young protester in a pink hat.

The government’s response reveals the nature — and limits — of Putin’s power. Moscow removed Gavrilov from his position as district head only after footage of the protests went viral, highlighting that the central government evaluates local officials by their ability to impose social stability.

When the center does not connect

Russian political analyst Nikolai Petrov has used the metaphor of a car to describe the changing center-periphery dynamic: While the Kremlin has gained more control over the steering wheel, there is now a weaker connection between the wheels and the road.

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Provincial officials are well aware that their ability to produce votes for United Russia, the “party of power,” determines their time in office. Of the 17 regional governors dismissed in 2017, 13 had produced below-average results for United Russia in the 2016 Duma election. Such an incentive structure ensures reliable outcomes for the Kremlin — but it also leaves Moscow less attuned to conditions on the ground.

In a recent book, Daniel Treisman describes two “systems” in Russian politics. “System 1” operates automatically, when local bureaucrats are able to effectively manage their domains without Putin’s personal involvement. “System 2,” known in Russian as ruchnoe upravlenie or “manual control,” prevails when the Kremlin needs to step in to solve local problems.

With local authorities increasingly out of touch with their constituencies, Putin’s Russia will rely more and more on “System 2” to stay afloat. As Treisman points out, this is a risky approach: “When it does not work — which is surprisingly often — it risks eroding Putin’s image of authoritative and effective leadership.”

Putin’s third term, from 2012 to 2018, was marked by Russia’s foreign policy adventures — Crimea, Syria and interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Recent events in Volokolamsk and Kemerovo mark a tumultuous start to Putin’s fourth term and suggest that it is time for analysts to refocus on what’s happening within Russia to appraise the future viability of Putin’s system.

Christopher Jarmas is a master’s candidate in Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian area studies at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter: @jarmascm.