SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev asked Russia’s business elite Monday to help rebuild villages destroyed by fierce wildfires after rain and strong winds looked set to end weeks of unprecedented heat.
Russia has been battling its worst heatwave which has killed dozens in wildfires over the past 50 days and doubled the death rate in the capital Moscow by blanketing it in toxic smoke.
Grain crops have been destroyed and economists predict the country could lose $14 billion of its gross domestic product this year.
Medvedev summoned the tycoons — including the owner of the world’s largest aluminum firm RUSAL, Oleg Deripaska, and shareholder in nickel miner Norilsk Nickel Vladimir Potanin — to his Black Sea summer residence in Sochi.
“Taking into account society’s attitude toward this problem and the scale of the disaster, I believe we can address how entrepreneurs can take part in dealing with the consequences,” Medvedev said.
Addressing Medvedev, Deripaska promised to build fifty houses. Vladimir Yevtushenkov, head of oil-to-telecoms holding company Sistema, said he was ready to contribute up to 20 million roubles ($654,900) for reconstruction.
Russia’s leaders have in the past requested business leaders to take part in state-backed social or industrial projects. The businessmen, most of whom profited from controversial privatisations in the 1990s, usually oblige.
The government has promised houses worth up to 2 million roubles ($65,490) for all 3,000 people left homeless by the fires.
Russia’s weather forecasting service said Monday rains are expected in drought-hit European Russia on August 16-18 while adding that the threat of new fires remained strong.
Separately Monday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited burning peat bogs around Moscow to oversee efforts to flood them. The operation is projected to cost $1 billion.
Putin also ordered local authorities to deal with hurricanes that have left thousands of homes without electricity in northwestern Russia and disrupted railway traffic between Moscow and St Petersburg.
The wildfires have exposed poverty in Russia’s rural areas where jobs are scarce and where many scratch out a living cultivating land plots and picking berries in forests.
“To be honest, life was not that sweet there even before the fires,” Medvedev said. “Everything burned there. It will be impossible to pick mushrooms and wild berries in the next few years.”
Writing by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Maria Golovnina