This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “The Far East Floods on Manual Control,”
August is never good to Russia and this year is no different. For over a month, the residents in the Amur, Khabarovsk, and the Jewish Autonomous regions have endured the worst flooding in the 120-year history of meteorological records. Over 100,000 people have been affected with tens of thousands evacuated. The monetary impact is estimated at over $1 billion. In the city of Khabarovsk, the water is over six meters. The city of 600,000 will begin evacuating if it reaches eight meters. The flood spans about 400,000 square miles. That’s the American states of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico combined. If you want to get a sense of its damage and spatial magnitude, see the photos taken by Alexander Kolbasin, a Khabarovsk resident, or the before and after satellite pictures of the Amur River provided RIA Novosti. It’s truly shocking, horrifying, and tragic.
Nevertheless, the floods illustrate a deeper quality of Russian statecraft: Its inability to switch from manual to automatic control. That is from the personal micromanagement of the President to decentralized, local administration. Granted, taking personal control is part of Putin’s political nature. Recall how he personally extinguished fires in Ryazan in 2010 and made several trips to Krymsk last year to chide local officials. Part of this is also the age old tactic of blaming underlings to deflect criticism of the center. But Putin’s performance is no mere symbolic photo-op. He is as much a captive to an intractable system as he is its master. Putin’s Russia is often characterized as a series of unbreakable links in a chain—the power vertical. Orders go down, their fulfillment goes up. But that is the problem. The power vertical ultimately atrophies local authorities’ power and initiative. Crises like the floods in the Far East reveal this. Therefore Putin must personally intervene, point fingers and give commands to simply get things moving.
Nezavisimaya gazeta tellingly summed up the situation: “The floods in the Far East are additional proof that much of the Russian state system is made to operate under manual control. Regional authorities and state bureaucrats attempt to resolve emerging problems and prevent the onset of the elements in automatic control, but it’s clear that for participants in the process, and not just the federal center, but the President himself are integral. That is to say, [bureaucrats] wait for the final decisions and instructive explanations from [the President]. He explicitly demands the final assessment of damage, the elimination of red tape, and the tackling problems in localities and not “through Moscow.” The fact that Putin only showed up a month after the flooding began is proof “automatic control” has failed.