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From The Socialist newspaper, 18 August 2010

Russia's raging wildfires - a crisis of government policies

DOZENS HAVE died in fires, thousands have drowned, hundreds have been arrested in the last month as the environmental crisis and the struggle against its causes find their epicentre in Moscow.

Rob Jones, Moscow

This summer has already seen 17 records smashed as temperatures have steadily climbed from the high 20s Celsius in the middle of June, to the mid-30s in July and now are around 40 Celsius. Forecasters say this heat wave may last until 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 20 regions, including Moscow where the city is shrouded in an increasingly bitter-tasting smog.

Apart from the 40 or more people who have died as their houses have burnt down, 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 prematurely due to respiratory and heart difficulties aggravated by the current conditions.

The authorities, of course, are treating this as a 'natural' catastrophe. In reality it is the short and long-term policies of the Russian government which have meant that no action has been taken to prevent global warming. Economic policies have made it almost impossible for the emergency services to respond adequately.

Russia is a major exporter of timber. 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 20 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.

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 current premier Vladimir Putin after lobbying by the timber processing industry, the number of these wardens was cut by 75%.

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.

Battle lines

One section of society who uses these fires to their advantage is the land speculators and developers.

In the past, around most big cities and in particular Moscow, there was 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!

The fate of Khimkinsky forest has culminated in a battle between developers and environmentalists. It 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.

Even though the construction company does not yet have all the necessary approvals for the start of work, they have begun to cut a swathe through Khimkinsky 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 vicious response organised by the company and the state. Over 31 July-1 August weekend, the protesters' 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 busload of protest supporters turned up, everyone was arrested on leaving the bus.

The 50 or so arrested there joined the 90 arrested on 31 July 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 two days.

The arrests of the environmentalists have 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.

The government 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.

The reality is that if global warming continues at the current rate Siberia's permafrost will melt (scientists say this is already far progressed) releasing huge amounts of methane [a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide] 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.

Alternative

There is plenty of combustible material around to ensure that the summer's heatwave turns into a storm of protest in the autumn. Not only is the economy showing few signs of recovery from the crisis, but the heatwave 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. Russia's government has banned grain exports 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, mobilising troops to fight fires. But nothing is being seriously done to ease the conditions in the city.

Some employers are cutting the working day to allow employees to go home early - but cutting the wages too.

The CWI argues that all non-essential factories in Moscow should suspend production during the heatwave with workers getting full pay.

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.


See socialistworld.net for the full version of this article.


Russian socialists brutally attacked after environmental protest

FOLLOWING A week of intensive actions against the attempts of the French company Vinci, supported by the Russian government, to cut down a section of an important forest providing vital green cover for Moscow [see main article], particularly in the current heatwave and smog, 15 thugs attacked three CWI members in Moscow.

One has had his eyes damaged, another ended up with stitches. The third, Igor Yasin, a leading member of the CWI, has been badly hurt with a broken skull.

Witnesses report that the thugs were dressed like football fans, in much the same way as those who earlier attacked the camp of the environmentalists defending the Khimkinsky forest.

Once again the ultra-right thugs have demonstrated that, despite all their words about fighting the regime, in reality they are just pathetic marionettes used by the regime and its big business backers to try and frighten political and social activists. They will not succeed.

Vinci is a major French construction company, whose website carries several news stories presenting it as a caring and socially responsible company concerned about the safety of its personnel and the environment. Yet it is quite happy to stand by while Putin's police regime and these fascist thugs are used to protect their business interests in Russia.

Protests have been organised at Russian embassies and also against the Vinci company.

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