MOSCOW – The floodwaters had not yet receded in Krymsk when the political game-playing began. On July 7, less than 24 hours after waves several meters high had swept through the southern Russian town taking at least 171 lives, state television showed lengthy footage of President Vladimir Putin inspecting the damage by helicopter and demanding explanations from local officials. Meanwhile, Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the liberal opposition Yabloko party, wrote on his Twitter feed that he had incontrovertible evidence to prove the most disturbing of conspiracy theories.
A trusted ecologist, said Mitrokhin, had inspected a reservoir close to Krymsk and confirmed that the sluice gates had been opened the previous night. In order to save Novorossiisk -- a much larger nearby city -- from flooding, the theory went, the decision had been made to flood Krymsk instead, without warning the residents. Vitriolic abuse began flying online between government supporters and opposition activists. "People, you've really lost the plot," wrote Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin's English-language television station Russia Today, retweeting a comment by an opposition-minded user saying "the dead have themselves to blame, for voting for 'stability.'" She later added that she was with Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, and they were wondering why "instead of sympathy, there is hysteria on Twitter."
Perhaps wary of appearing too opportunist, and aware that the regime is doing their work for them, the major opposition figures to emerge from the anti-Putin street protests this winter have kept their rhetoric toned down, and instead focused on organizing the volunteer efforts. A kind of truce was declared as some neutral and pro-government figures joined with members of Russia's nascent anti-government civil society movement to help the volunteers collect clothes, food, and other emergency supplies to be driven from Moscow and other cities to Krymsk. But don't be fooled by the kumbaya gestures -- there has been an unmistakeable political subtext to the entire response to the first major crisis of Putin's new presidency.
Back in 2000, Putin faced the first crisis of his first presidency, the Kursk submarine disaster -- in which a rescue attempt was delayed, then botched, and 118 sailors died in the frigid waters of the Barents Sea. From a political public relations perspective, Putin's personal handling of events was a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. It was several days before he bothered to break his holiday on the Black Sea and return to Moscow to take command of the situation. The Kremlin tried in vain to keep a lid on the crisis and waved off international offers of assistance. Afterwards, when asked by CNN's Larry King what had happened with the boat, he smirked and said: "It sank."
He has been on a long journey since then. The awkward Putin of 2000 has morphed into the action-man Putin that we have come to know: a man who single-handedly fells deadly tigers, harpoons pesky whales, and rides manly motorcycles. When forest fires hit Russia two years ago, Putin was on hand to personally fly a plane to help put the flames out. Krymsk, though, is the first crisis that Putin has had to deal with since the street protests against his rule started, and perhaps it's the first time since 2000 when his rule has not seemed fully secure. Of course, Putin dispatched himself to the scene of the flooding as soon as possible, but what two years ago might have been seen as a perfect opportunity for Putin to get his hands dirty chipping in with the rescue efforts in front of the cameras was handled very differently this time.
There seemed to be a need to show Putin in control, but also a fear that should he be forced to interact with any real victims of the floods, the results could be embarrassing. Perhaps he took note in 2005 of U.S. President George W. Bush's bungled response to the devastating Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans -- an emergency and public relations effort that infuriated millions of Americans doubtful of his leadership skills. So, much like Bush's famous photo op from Air Force One, television viewers were treated to several minutes of footage of Putin and Krasnodar Gov. Alexander Tkachev flying over the region in a luxury helicopter and discussing the damage. "Where did it all come from?" asked Putin, wearing a black shirt and a very concerned expression. "Like a tsunami. Awful," he added, when Tkachev told him that the waves had been seven meters high.
Judging from the reception given to Tkachev the next day when he addressed residents in one of Krymsk's main squares, Putin made the right decision to stay away. They screamed and shouted at the governor; indeed, if it had not been for the high level of security, he may not have made it out intact. Russian politicians do not, as a rule, have experience in dealing with angry citizens, and Tkachev looked hot, bemused, and flailing. A trusted Putin lieutenant who wears sharp suits and expensive watches, Tkachev is viewed as important in Moscow mainly because his region contains Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Huge investments and regular allegations of corruption surround the preparations, and Tkachev is the man who oversees it all. He was probably expecting a pleasant summer feasting on canapés at the London Olympics, but instead found himself having to face the furious rabble of Krymsk.
Dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief, he said that the authorities had only found out that there was a serious danger of flooding at 10 p.m., apparently believing this to be a perfect excuse for the inaction. The locals, realizing that this meant there had been a window of three hours before the floods peaked -- during which evacuation or at least warning could have taken place -- howled in disapproval. In words that will probably haunt him for the rest of his career, an exasperated Tkachev shot back, "What, were we supposed to go around to every single person?"