Russia's top duo fight to save reputation from flames
Image-making has emerged as a significant weapon in Russia’s heatwave crisis as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev seek to maintain their popularity.Moscow – Be it dousing fires from a plane or sacking several officers in a single meeting, Russia's ruling tandem is battling to ensure its hold on power does not go up in smoke in the wildfire crisis.
Image-making has emerged as significant a weapon in the crisis as hoses or water-bombing jets as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev seek to ensure their popularity survives the crisis intact.
With Russia emerging from the slowdown, the duo may have been congratulating themselves on deftly seeing off the economic crisis as they planned their summer holidays.
But then Russia found itself hit by a heatwave that wrecked 10 million hectares of land and triggered wildfires which have killed over 50 people and burned down entire villages.
Holidays -- which last year saw a half-nude Putin proudly posing on horseback and Medvedev wading around in the Volga Delta in a wetsuit -- have been swept off the agenda.
Strong public relations drive
But image-making is very much on, amid a new climate of uncertainty.
With a pair of headphones clamped to his ears, Putin on Tuesday took the controls of a plane to scoop up water from a lake in one of the worst affected regions and then dump it on the burning forests.
Taking a page from Putin's tough-guy handbook, Medvedev last week staged an extraordinary meeting over the damage caused by the fires to a naval logistics centre in which he personally sacked five officers in the space of 30 seconds.
"Putin goes up in the plane, puts out fires, Medvedev sacks the little scapegoats, they hand out money and the public likes it," he added.
The fires have struck at a crucial political moment, with speculation growing over the intentions of the two men ahead of the next presidential elections in 2012.
Putin handed over the presidency to Medvedev in 2008 after serving a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms but has never ruled out returning to the Kremlin in 2012.
The crisis has also coincided with the anniversary of what was possibly the worst PR disaster of Putin's decade in power, the sinking of the Kursk submarine in August 2000 with the loss of 118 lives.
Then a relatively novice president, Putin notoriously failed to break off his holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as the full impact of the tragedy became clear.
"Ten years ago, Putin's critics predicted that his career had sunk with the Kursk. But it is only now that the regime is losing itself in the catastrophe of this summer," said the Gazeta.ru online newspaper.
This time, Putin was relatively quick off the mark, dramatically pictured standing amid the smouldering wreckage of the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya in the Nizhny Novgorod region, although he later found himself heckled by residents.
He then came up with the idea of installing video cameras to monitor reconstruction efforts at the worst hit areas. These broadcast direct to the premier's office and home and can also be viewed on the government website.
Putin: Going too far
However his latest stunt -- dropping tonnes of water from a plane -- was a step too far for some.
"This is a tunnel vision of the PR-makers who believe that a TV picture of Putin behind the wheel of something is an eternal panacea for a falling rating," leading business daily Vedomosti commented bitterly.
Vedomosti acidly noted that Medvedev earlier this week warned political opponents not to try and profit from the crisis by carrying out "political PR".
It is too early to tell whether the crisis will hurt or improve their poll ratings, which have been slightly on the wane over the summer months.
Gudkov cautioned against seeing a major dip, noting that the state remains in control of news broadcasts on the main television channels which are the main source of information for most of the population.
"What is important is total control over TV. No criticism on the main TV channels is allowed and the circulation of those papers criticising Putin and Medvedev is low," he said.
Medvedev in Sochi?
Aside from the mass-sacking, Medvedev has been largely eclipsed by Putin in the crisis and dealt with unrelated events like hosting the South African president and visiting the rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia.
It was Medvedev this time who found himself in Sochi as the crisis broke, although he hurriedly broke off his holidays.
He also has at times seemed strangely powerless in the face of the crisis. "I woke up this morning, looked out of the window and saw a monstrous situation," the Kremlin chief declared Friday as Moscow choked in smog.
Stuart Williams / AFP / Expatica