Russia: Hot summer in Moscow – warm autumn likely to follow.

Dozens have died in fires, hundreds have been arrested, thousands have drowned in the last month as the ecological crisis and the struggle against its causes find their epicenter in Moscow.

This summer has already seen 17 temperature records smashed as temperatures have steadily climbed from the high twenties Celsius in the middle of June, to the mid-thirties in July and now around forty degrees Celsius. Forecasters say this heat wave may last till September and may get even worse. Never have such temperatures been recorded in Moscow. The already stifling heat has been made worse by the outbreak of forest and turf fires in more than twenty regions, including Moscow. The city is shrouded by an increasingly bitter tasting smog, which is getting so bad that even in underground metro stations, you can no longer see properly from one end of the platform to another. Apart from the forty or so people who have died as their houses have burnt down, thousands, yes thousands have drowned in lakes and rivers as they have attempted (often following the consumption of alcohol) to cool off. No-one knows the figure but many hundreds, if not thousands more, are dying earlier due to respiratory and heart difficulties aggravated by the current conditions.

The authorities, of course are treating this as a natural catastrophe. The new head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill goes further, by saying it is God’s revenge – Russians should stop sinning, he says: “One shouldn’t think that the drought will pass if we just pray to God and then forget and fall into sin” he commented, as he visited one of the flamed villages. The trouble is it is getting so hot in Moscow now, some may think that a trip to hell may even be cooler!

But the reality of it is that it is the short and long term policies of the Russian government that have meant that no action has been taken to prevent global warming and its own economic policies have made it almost impossible for the emergency services to respond adequately.

Russia is a major exporter of timber. Naturally, the huge forests that spread for thousands of kilometers across Russia have been a major attraction for those seeking to exploit the country’s natural resources. Whilst in Soviet times the forests were state owned and managed by weeding out dead trees and maintaining a certain level of housekeeping, those who now exploit the timber do not care about managing the forests, they leave waste and dead wood where they find it.

As the countryside has collapsed further into dire poverty over the past twenty years a new industry has sprung up – the extraction of turf for heating. But the economic crisis has dealt a blow to the smallholders scraping a living selling turf. Many have been bankrupted and they have just left their diggings open, susceptible to fire.

These conditions have naturally left the countryside susceptible to the wildfires that have sprung up in the 35-40 degree heat wave. In the past, the country had a system of fire wardens, whose job was to sound an early alarm so that outbreaks could be tackled quickly. Three years ago, however, in a new Forest Code introduced by Putin after lobbying by the timber processing industry, the number of these wardens was cut by 75%. Now the whole system has been centralized (with 12,000 new administrators). If three years ago fire equipment could be moved within a day to crisis areas, now it can take a week. And the service has been so underfunded that engines are running out of fuel.

The government of course has been quick to suggest that some of those who have lost their homes (villages in the country are usually occupied by the poorest layer of Russian society, living in wooden built structures) have been happy to see them burn down, counting on the government paying them compensation. Indeed the government has said it will pay some money, but no-one in Russia any longer believes that the promises to pay compensation will be met. Even if the money leaves the central finance ministry, it gets soaked up by the various layers of bureaucrats before any ever reaches the victims who need it.

There is another section of society that does use these fires to their advantage – the land speculators and developers. Around most big cities, and in particular Moscow, in the past, there has been a conscious policy of maintaining a significant green belt of forest. With nearly 12 million inhabitants, the city has desperately needed the vegetation to help with oxygen supplies. But as real estate prices have rocketed, a constant battle has opened up to allow construction in these areas. And it is not the Moscow city government that defends the green belt anymore. After all, the Mayor’s wife has now become the world’s third richest woman (!) as head of one of the city’s main construction conglomerates.

At the height of this week’s heat a battle royal over the fate of Khiminskii wood came to a culmination. This is an area of woodland between Moscow’s main international airport and the city itself. The government has decided that a new private, toll financed highway is necessary between Moscow and St Petersburg to run right through the centre of this wood. Like everything else done by this government, improvements are being made for the rich, while the rest have to suffer the old conditions.

Typically, recently a new high speed train service was introduced between Moscow and St Petersburg cutting the former 8 hour journey in half. But apart from the fact that the tickets are almost as expensive as air travel, residents living by the railway complain at huge noise levels and pressure shocks as the train travels through and, even worse, local train services are suspended whilst the train passes. The trains have become an easy target – drivers complain that residents are throwing rocks almost every time the train runs.

Even though the construction company does not yet have all the necessary approvals for the start of work, they have started to cut a swathe through Khiminskii wood. In response a group of 100 or so “defenders of the forest” have been resisting by barricading the equipment and even on one occasion persuading the drivers not to carry on cutting. They have been met with a viscous response organized by the company and state. Over the July 31/August 1 weekend, their camp was attacked by a gang of hired thugs in masks and when the police were called, they looked the other way. One of the cops told a protester “this is what happens when you oppose Putin”. On the following Monday morning, as a bus of supporters turned up to support the protesters, each was arrested on leaving the bus.

The fifty or so arrested there joined the 90 arrested on the 31st in St Petersburg and another 50 in Moscow after an attempt by liberal opposition protesters to complain about the attacks on democratic rights. It is some time since so many have been arrested in the two major cities over 2 days.

The arrests of the environmentalists has succeeded in turning their battle from one against a construction company into an openly political struggle against the central government. And a political struggle against the government over the environment is necessary.

It has an unbelievably cynical approach to global warming, expressed in Russia’s climate doctrine, which does not treat the issue as a threat to humanity but as a commercial opportunity for Russian capitalism. It says: “the potential benefits for Russia include the reduction in energy needed for heating, the improvement of the ice belt, that is the improvement of transport routes in the arctic sea, easier access to the arctic shelf (where there is oil and gas), expansion in the growing season and number of cultivatable crops and improved effectiveness of livestock farming”.

The reality is, that if global warming continues at the current rate the permafrost leaving much of Siberia’s ground frozen year round will melt (scientists say this is already far progressed) releasing huge amounts of extra carbon monoxide into the atmosphere making global warming an even more horrifying threat than it already is. But the Russian capitalists won’t mind as Moscow won’t fall below the surface of the sea, and the Russian oil and gas oligarchs will get control of an even bigger share of the world’s energy resources.

The attack on the activists in Khiminskii wood is also indicative of the ham fisted manner in which the authorities now deal with any discontent. In July, the Kremlin sponsored youth organization “Nashi” held its summer camp attended by thousands of youth. In a display promoted by the Kremlin spin doctors, the campsite was dominated by large paintings of opposition figures and human rights activists dressed as Hitler obtaining money from the west. This has proved a last straw for Ela Panfilova, a liberal politician who has acted as the Kremlin’s “Human rights ombudsman” for the past several years. She has resigned her position. Commenting on this, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” noted that this will weaken even further the moderates in the regime in a period leading up to expected mass protests.

There is certainly plenty of combustible material around to ensure that the summer’s heat wave turns into a storm of protest in the autumn. Despite soothing declarations about the government’s planned budget cuts being spread over a longer period, school closure announcements are already appearing. But the government’s room for maneuver is narrowing. Not only is the economy showing few signs of recovery from the crisis, but the heat wave and drought is serving further blows to the economy.

The drought conditions over most of European Russia mean that harvest yields are expected to be at least 40% down on normal years. This is already leading to a leap in inflation – in some regions wheat and grain prices have gone up by 20% already. In an echo of what happened in the early 1990s, now some regional governors, worried that protests will spring up in their region are banning the export of key foodstuffs to other regions (the key “other region” is of course Moscow). But it also means that Russia will not be able to export significant amounts of grain this year, thus knocking a further hole in budget planning.

To tackle the crisis, Moscow Mayor Luzkhov has gone on holiday. President Medvedev has decamped to work in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast – where temperatures are significantly cooler. Premier Putin as usual is touring around, mobilizing troops to fight fires, sacking the odd commander, promising to pay compensation. But nothing is being seriously done to ease the conditions in the city.

The CWI is calling for even the simplest of measures to be taken – the washing down of roads (which is currently happening only outside government buildings and in the streets of the very rich), for air conditioned buses to be parked at the entrances to metros and other points so that those suffering from the heat and atmosphere can sit for a break every so often. Some employers are cutting the working day to allow employees home early – but cutting the wages too. We say that all non essential factories in Moscow should suspend production during the heat wave with workers getting full pay. Another factor making the atmosphere bad is the presence in the air of fine particles, many of which are carcinogens – levels are over ten times the norm. This is particularly bad near major roads. We say only essential traffic should be allowed into Moscow during the crisis with private buses and taxis commandeered to provide transport for all who need it.

But obviously this current heat wave is only a precursor of what is to come. The woods and lakes surrounding Moscow need to be returned to public ownership and protected from the greedy paws of speculators and developers. There needs to be a whole revamping of the transport system, changing priorities away from trains and highways for the elite and with policies aimed at reducing car use. For this there needs to be major investment in the public mass transport system both within Moscow and between major cities.

It is understandable that there was a high attendance at both the CWI’s summer camp at the end of July and, despite the horrific heat and smog, the two Moscow branches this week saw a record overall attendance at its Moscow branches this past week, an indication of the changing mood. Within a day of the CWI posting an appeal to protest at the frame up arrests of two young anti fascists after an anarchist attack of stone throwing at the local authority buildings in Khimki, over 400 people sent letters of protest. Now the CWI is spending the rest of the hot summer gearing up for the autumn’s inevitable protests at the budget cuts and attacks on democratic rights.

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August 2010