A Lack of Accountability

As wildfires around Moscow dwindle down, many continue asking why the wildfire catastrophe in Russia was allowed to escalate to such a high level. In a Moscow Times opinion piece, Yevgenia Albats argues that part of the problem is that local governors are appointed rather than elected and thus lack a sense of responsibility to the people living in their region. Albats points to Moscow’s mayor, Yury Luzhkov, who was famously on vacation for during a good part of the disaster, as a prime example of this lack of accountability. Evidently, his absence from the office while the city burned didn’t put his job in jeopardy in any way.

What would have happened if Luzhkov served in a country that had popular elections for governors? If Luzhkov knew that he would soon be facing re-election — his term expires in October 2011 — would he have allowed himself a vacation while Moscow was being ravaged by heat and toxic smog? Of course not. But neither Luzhkov nor whoever may replace him must worry about voter approval since the Kremlin appoints governors. (Although Luzhkov’s official title is mayor, the city of Moscow, along with St. Petersburg, is designated in the Constitution as a “federal jurisdiction,” and thus Luzhkov was appointed by the federal government on the same terms and conditions as the country’s governors.)

Another example of this is the Nizhny Novgorod region, just 400kilometers east of Moscow, which has been hit hard by the heat wave andfires. At least 36 people, including seven children, have lost theirlives in the region, and more than 1,000 people have lost their homesand livelihoods.

Rare candid footage of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, displayed ongovernment channels, depicted him visiting Verkhnyaya Vereya, a villagein the region. People who had lost their homes, clothing and everythingelse were complaining to Putin that the regional and local governmentsdid not warn them that the fire was coming. There were practically nofiretrucks. In many towns and villages, there was no electricity, sowater pumps were not operable. “No one even tried to save us,” theywailed to Putin, who was accompanied by Nizhny Novgorod Governor ValeryShantsev.

A week later, an inauguration ceremony officially began Shantsev’ssecond term in office. Like all other Russian governors, he was notelected by those who live in his region. (Before being appointedgovernor, he was Luzhkov’s deputy.) He was appointed by the presidentand thus bears no accountability whatsoever to those he is supposed toserve.