Kemerovo, the place where corruption kills

Mar 30 2018

Keremovo is a city in Russia located 255 km (158 mi) from Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia and Russia’s third largest behind Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slightly over 500,000 live in the industrial city of Kemerovo.

On March 25, 2018, a fire ripped through the “Winter Cherry” mall and theatre complex in the city. According to the BBC, the fire started somewhere on an upper floor in the mall, during school holidays. The complex, which had multiple movie theatres, a bar, cafe, and a bowling alley, was packed and bustling.

While the cause of the fire isn’t known yet for sure, two speculative answers are floating around.

“Senior regional official Vladimir Chernov was quoted as saying the fire probably began in the children’s trampoline room on the top floor of the four-story building.

“The preliminary suspicion is that a child had a cigarette lighter which ignited foam rubber in this trampoline room, and it erupted like gunpowder,” he said.

However, Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.”

President Vladimir Putin visited Kemerovo and blamed “criminal negligence and sloppiness” for the disaster.

The scenes were heartbreaking.

A Russian man spoke to a crowd of indignant protesters in the city center on the 27th of March, which had been declared a day of mourning. He detailed the last words he spoke to his daughter before she fell victim to the blaze. His last words to the crowd were interrupted by his own tears. The protesters called for an investigation into the disaster and for local officials to resign.

Rumors are swirling around. Official numbers claim 64 people died and that 27 are still missing, but some are adamant that the death toll is much higher, perhaps as high as 300. Despite the history of deceit and propaganda which has come from authorities and the state media in Russia, this has not yet been confirmed. In fact, Meduza, a Russian and English paper based in Riga which is generally quite critical of the Kremlin and President Putin, lays out a comprehensive list of reasons why the rumors of the death toll being much higher than reported may not be true.

Even if the official figures are not found to be entirely accurate, there is still a problem to be discussed among the Russian people in the wake of this horrific disaster.

The disaster in Kemerovo is a symptom of two much larger and much more grim problems than a simple building fire. First, corruption in Russia is a rampant epidemic. Transparency International ranks Russia 135th out of 180 in its corruption index, on par with countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. While corruption is arguably not as bad as it was in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin, the issue is still a common scapegoat for Russia’s internal issues or inefficiencies.

Yet little ever seems to be accomplished regarding corruption. The current government, while occasionally offering words of encouragement to anti-corruption efforts, does not seem particularly interested in resolving the issue on a national scale. “Not as bad as it was under President Yeltsin” is a low expectation to set and an even lower one to declare the status quo.

Corruption has been a problem in the Kremlin long before Vladimir Putin ever considered running for office. It started to rear its ugly head on a nationwide scale under hardliner Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. The planned economy, still being heralded as the superior system to the perceived excesses and hedonism of capitalism, had become rife with redundancies, waste and an endless bureaucracy. It had started to stagnate and rot from within. Reformist Premier Mikhail Gorbachov tried to right the ship, but his reforms largely backfired and contributed to mounting instability which eventually became a major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It only grew and spread under Yeltsin as his ineffective and wildly unpopular government fruitlessly attempted to reform the Russian economy from the smoldering ashes of the collapsed planned economy.

And here we are, in Vladimir Putin’s eighteenth year of power. While rushing to blame Putin as if he was the one to personally start the fire is excessive, it may be time to seriously address a different, intangible problem that is related to the stubborn corruption present in Russia: apathy.

Russians and their Eastern European counterparts are often stereotyped as stoic peoples who grimly go about their lives, rarely smiling unless something unexpectedly wonderful happens or they’ve had a few drinks. Unfortunately, this stereotype can sometimes translate to the political arena. Russians are generally supportive of democracy in theory, but the brain drain, poverty, crime and lost identity that came to define the 1990s soured many Russians’ opinions on the new system of government. Political apathy, while found everywhere, is especially recognizable and tangible in today’s Russia.

While Russia in the 1990s was more democratic than it is now or was under communism, “more” is a relative, and in this case, marginal term. When people are represented by a government which struggles to complete even basic functions, the power and freedom that democracy is supposed to extend to the people  of a sovereign state are difficult to realize.

This was a problem in the United States before its constitution was written as well. Between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a sort of prototype constitution that decentralized government to an extreme degree. While life was freer under the Articles that it was under the British Crown, the new government was so ineffective that it proved difficult to realize and celebrate these freedoms.

Eighteen years after Vladimir Putin swept his way into power, he remains the ever-dominant figure in Russian politics. While the Russian economy surged between 2000 and 2007, it has been sluggish or in serious recession since then. President Putin is starting to be compared to Leonid Brezhnev, as while life is generally stable and steady, corruption and apathy are rampant in a sluggish, stagnant state.

That’s where the Russian people can come in and make a difference.

The Kemerovo Disaster was a horrific disaster which could have been prevented. It’s easy to lay the blame at those directly involved, and they are right to be reprimanded. There is no excuse for the alleged negligence of those in the direct vicinity: the security who failed to pull or fix the fire alarm, those who decided to lock the theater doors, and the bogus inspection of the building’s procedures and preparedness for an emergency.

These livid protesters are calling for accountability, a basic tenet of representative government. For years the Kremlin has failed to deliver that. It’s not healthy to fall back into the complacency that life is stable and quiet-society requires an active and invested populace. Another reason for Kemerovo’s disaster was the under-funded fire department: Russia’s wealth, unfortunately, is mostly focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Proposed investments in the smaller cities are slow to come if ever.

Russia does not necessarily need photogenic pictures of millions in the streets demanding reform or even revolution as was seen in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. What it needs, at least as a first step, is for its people to demand accountability on a grand scale. It’s time to stop brushing off corruption as a fact of life-reform is difficult but it certainly is not impossible. Kemerovo was not the first fire disaster in contemporary Russia, but if the people are willing to demand accountability, disasters like this can be prevented or at least substantially controlled so there is less to grieve.

by Kyle Menyhert

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