January 17, 2019

For Putin, Shopping Mall Fire Is a Bigger Headache Than Diplomatic Feud With West

For Putin, Shopping Mall Fire Is a Bigger Headache Than Diplomatic Feud With West

“Even if the official death toll reflects reality, at the end of the day people know how the government lied in Beslan, Nord-Ost, Kursk and many other places. So they have themselves to blame for the spiraling level of distrust,” said a post on Twitter by Kaloy Akhilgov, a lawyer and former government official.

State television largely ignored Tuesday’s gathering in Kemerovo’s central square, focusing instead on Mr. Putin’s visit to a hospital ward and his solemn expressions of condolences.

It also showed him pointing a finger at lowly local officials and strenuously avoiding the question of whether a system addled by corruption might be the real problem.

Despite draconian fire regulations and an army of inspectors to enforce them, Russia has one of the world’s worst fire safety records. Between 2001 and 2015, according to a study by International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, Russia had an average of 7.5 deaths per 100,000 people from fires, compared with 1 in the United States, 2.7 in Kazakhstan and 0.5 in France and Germany. Russia, where fire inspectors are notorious for extorting bribes, had the worst death rate of 41 countries covered by the study.

Mr. Putin made no mention of Russia’s lamentable and well-known fire safety record, but instead expressed puzzled outrage that the shopping mall had gone up in flames and killed so many people.

“What’s happening here?” Mr. Putin said in a highly scripted meeting with Kemerovo officials. “This isn’t war, it’s not a spontaneous methane outburst. People came to relax, children. We’re talking about demography and losing so many people.”

The crowd on the square, however, had no interest in the official script. When Mr. Tsivilev, the deputy governor, announced that a total of 64 deaths had been recorded, one man shouted: “Why are you lying?” A live stream by video service Ruptly showed another clambering onto the platform to confront Mr. Tsivilev.

Instead of calming the throng, the deputy governor only inflamed it by suggesting that some people were exploiting the tragedy to attract attention. This drew a furious retort from Mr. Vostikov, the author of the social media post denouncing corruption.

“I have lost my sister Sabadash Alyona Igorevna; my wife, Vostrikova Elena Sergeevna; three children — five, seven and two years old. I came here for self-promotion, did I?”

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