Russia's Putin acts tough but faces flood risks

MOSCOW Sun Jul 8, 2012 12:16pm EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - It took only a few hours before Vladimir Putin was aboard a luxury helicopter, surveying the flood waters in southern Russia that have killed 150 people.

Television channels showed the Russian president asking pointed questions and then grilling the governor and other local officials unsmilingly about whether they had acted quickly enough to save lives.

Seven months after the start of protests that have weakened Putin's authority, he can ill afford any slip-ups as he deals with the first big natural disaster since his return to the Kremlin.

Adopting the headmasterly manner and tone that he has used to popular acclaim at earlier disasters, he repeated questions when he did not hear what he wanted.

Checking widespread rumors that a reservoir had overflowed and made the flooding worse, the leader, dressed in a black shirt and no tie, asked twice: "Can you tell me, were there any leaks of water from the reservoir?"

The intended message was clear: Russians can breathe more easily now because Putin has taken charge.

Back in the presidency for barely two months, the flying visit to areas where more than 150 people were killed by floods and landslides offered him a chance to do what he likes most - to play the role of the man of action and the nation's leader.

His manner, and the launch of an investigation into why the death toll was so high, suggest culprits will be found to blame over the floods.

But his trip was also designed to show he had learnt his lesson from previous disasters.

Twelve years ago, three months after he was first elected president, a nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea while Putin was on holiday. Putin sat in silence for five days and Russia initially refused help from foreign rescue teams.

Days later, when it was confirmed that all 118 people on board the Kursk submarine had been killed, Russian media said he had done too little, too late.

"Since 2000 the president has always flown to the scene of disasters. It's part of the system. His presence helps force local bureaucracies to work together that otherwise might not do so," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor.

"It is part of the system and it is also something that public opinion expects. If he did not go there, it would look bad for him," Pavlovksy said, acknowledging that this would be more risky for Putin now that his popularity has slipped.

LOST AURA OF INVINCIBILITY

When Putin made mistakes in the handling of the Kursk disaster, Russians in the end gave him the benefit of the doubt. The former KGB spy had just won a resounding election victory and was immensely popular.

Twelve years later, Putin is again fresh from a convincing election win and has strong support in the provinces. But his aura of invincibility has been erased by protests of his 12-year rule and his popularity has declined.

Putin, now 59, has a mixed record on handling crises. Some have been resolved only at a high human cost.

More than 330 people, half of them children, were killed when Russian troops stormed a school in Beslan in southern Russia where Chechen rebel fighters had taken pupils and teachers hostage in September 2004.

Another crisis, when Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theatre in October 2002 and took 850 people hostage, also ended with a high death count. When Russia forces tried to end the siege, 129 of the hostages were killed by a gas that was supposed to knock out the hostage-takers.

Putin remained firmly in power after these incidents, and continued the macho antics that for years won him support. But such stunts now look increasingly staged and ineffective, and are often mocked on social media.

The news from Krasnodar dominated Twitter feeds on Sunday, with plenty of them critical of the way loyal Russian media had concentrated on Putin's visit.

"The news on Channel One: The floods happened, Putin arrives in Krymsk, Putin flies in a helicopter, Putin arrives somewhere else, Putin has a meeting. Putin...," said a tweet by a Russian identified only as Dalia Roshina.

Her implication was that the media coverage had been more about Putin than the disaster itself.

When compensation was announced for the victims, journalist Boris Vedenek tweeted that the amount was less that what riot police were paid as a bonus to work during a big rally against Putin on May 6 which turned violent.

Some tweeters rallied behind Putin. "In their comments, people angrily pour scorn on the country and Putin. Why? Idiots," wrote Yulia Monakova, a Russian who now lives in India.

But the criticism underlined the question Putin and his team need to address in his new six-year term - do the old image tricks still work?

A further risk is that if any local officials are identified as culprits over the floods, Putin could find his United Russia party in the dock as it still dominates local officialdom.

"The main demand is that the people guilty for ... the deaths in Krymsk are tried in court," tweeted Sergei Udaltsov, an opposition leader.

Using the opposition's derogatory slogan for United Russia as a party of "crooks and thieves", he wrote: "Crooks, thieves and killers - get them out of power!"

(Editing by Anna Willard)

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