Fire in Kemerovo exposes Russia’s entrenched corruption

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the town of Kemerovo, where over 60 people died in a shopping mall fire. Many blame government corruption and gross negligence for Russia’s high fire death rate./ Courtesy of en.kremlin.ru

On March 25, the Russian town of Kemerovo experienced an unspeakable tragedy: 64 people, including dozens of children, lost their lives in a shopping center fire. Their loved ones, as well as many other concerned and outraged Russian citizens, are seeking answers for why the shopping center’s fire alarms didn’t sound, why the emergency exits were locked and why numerous glaring safety violations were not reported and rectified in the preceding years.

The available evidence suggests that the owners of the center and officials intentionally overlooked safety breaches, and it has been speculated that the inspectors were bribed, as is often the case, to ignore deficiencies (CTV News, “Siberian Mall Fire that Killed 64 ‘Reflects All of Russia’s Problems,’” 04.01.2018). This is a common tactic to cut costs, but ultimately it costs lives.

The Kemerovo fire is not an isolated incident. It is not even the most fatal fire in recent Russian history. In December 2009, a fire at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm resulted in 156 deaths (The Moscow Times, “Why Russian Tragedies Are Doomed to Repeat,” 03.29.2018). In eerie parallels to Kemerovo, the exits were blocked and toxic fumes from banned building materials suffocated the trapped patrons. This is an endemic problem in the Russian Federation.

Due to faulty inspection procedures and routine bribery of officials, Russia has one of the highest fire death rate in the developed world. From 2011 to 2015, it recorded 7.5 deaths related to fire per 100,000 residents, which is more than seven times the per-capita fire deaths in the United States (CTV News).

Local officials compounded the problem by treating protesting locals, some of whom had lost their children, with contempt and dismissing them as outside agitators. The longtime governor of the Kemerovo region, Aman Tuleyev, claimed that only 200 people protested when the real number was in the thousands. The first deputy governor added, “We are concluding that this was a clearly orchestrated event aimed at discrediting authorities” (Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, “‘Clearly Orchestrated’: Russian Official Calls Protest Over Deadly Fire A Bid To ‘Discredit’ State,” 03.28.2018).

Only after significant pressure from locals and the federal government in Moscow did Tuleyev personally tender his resignation to President Vladimir Putin and offer an apology. The resignation came alongside the arrest of seven people in the investigation of the fire, including an executive from the firm that owned the shopping center and the head of the local building inspection agency (Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, “Governor Of Russia’s Kemerovo Region Resigns After Deadly Mall Fire,” 04.01.2018).

Such piecemeal efforts are unlikely to curb deaths in Russia due to a toxic blend of corruption and criminal negligence. Corruption at the lowest levels will endure as long as the highest strata of the Russian state continues its pattern of large-scale malfeasance. Through embezzlement, bribery, kickbacks and stock holdings in state-controlled companies, men like Putin have accumulated billions of dollars (Money, “Is Vladimir Putin Secretly the Richest Man in the World?” 01.23.2017).

Putin, despite his own questionable gains, recognizes that Russia is held back by corruption and has launched initiatives in the past with the stated aim of curbing it.

Nevertheless, other than the occasional prosecution of an oligarch that has fallen out of favor with the Kremlin, most of the Russian elite has been able to safely hold on to the assets they have accumulated on the backs of the Russian people.

Corruption is the glue that holds the constituent elements of Putin’s coalition together. The Kremlin has been able to rule the country through extensive patronage networks run by oligarchs and high-ranking members of the security services linked to Putin. As of 2013, before collapsing oil prices and sanctions dented the Russian economy, approximately $300 billion— or 16 percent of Russia’s GDP—has been eaten up by corruption (Institute for Human Sciences, “Putin’s Self-Destruction: Russia’s New Anti-Corruption Campaign Will Sink the Regime,” 06.09.2013).

Any substantive effort to reign in corruption at the highest levels would lead to an elite revolt against Putin and the collapse of his ability to rule. To prevent future tragedies like the one in Kemerovos, Russia needs a Federal government that is genuinely committed to rooting out corruption at all levels of society.

However, this is impossible as long as those who are currently in power remain in their positions. How many more people must die before justice is served?

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