(Bloomberg View) -- Whoever advised Russian President Vladimir Putin to change his plans and go to Kemerovo -- the scene of the shopping center fire that took at least 64 lives on Sunday -- must have meant well. The Kremlin failed to declare nationwide mourning in the direct aftermath of the tragedy, and, had Putin stayed away, the insensitivity would have grated with many Russians, even those who voted to return him to power on March 18.
But Putin kept his distance from grieving citizens during his trip to the Siberian city on Tuesday. In so doing, he drew attention to the wide chasm between the system he built and the people it governs. Had it not been for the Kremlin's skill at suppressing dissent, this gap would be a major opportunity for his political opponents.
The Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) mall in central Kemerovo largely avoided fire safety inspections because it was somehow classified as a small business despite its massive size -- 248,000 square feet. It burned like a fuse as fire alarms and smoke extraction systems failed to deploy. The victims, including many young adults and children, died while locked in a movie theater -- presumably to prevent others from entering without tickets.
Monday in Kemerovo passed amid wild rumors that in fact hundreds of people had died and the authorities were hiding the truth. Screenshots circulating on the social networks purported to show eyewitness accounts of grieving relatives being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to see their dead. So on Tuesday, a crowd of some 4,000 people burst through police cordons encircling the square in front of the regional administration building. The unsanctioned rally -- a rarity in Kemerovo, the long-time fiefdom of near-feudal governor Aman Tuleyev -- became the scene of some tense confrontations.
Mayor Ilya Seredyuk asked the protesters to move to the local music theater so that a calmer conversation could be held, but they wouldn't listen. There were too many of them, anyway. Then two vice-governors joined the mayor. One of them, Sergei Tsivilyov, accused a man yelling into a megaphone of trying to exploit the tragedy for political ends; the man turned out to be Igor Vostrikov, who had lost his wife, sister and three small children in the fire. Another Tsivilyov faux pas was to get down on his knees before the crowd to beg forgiveness for "a common tragedy" without taking any blame. Soon the crowd was chanting "resign," some even addressing that to Putin; the mayor only managed to defuse the tension somewhat by offering to send some volunteers to the morgue to make sure it wasn't overflowing with charred bodies.
Meanwhile, Putin indulged in his passion for micromanagement, meeting with Tuleyev, the Russian emergencies minister and the chief criminal investigator. He listened to their detailed reports about what went wrong, the malfunctioning equipment, the locked doors, the lack of inspections, the shopping center's opaque ownership structure. At some point, Putin appeared to become convinced that the city government was to blame. "Where's the mayor?" he asked. "Why wasn't he invited?"
The mayor, of course, had his hands full with the angry citizens. But Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov didn't say so. "The appropriate agencies are dealing with these matters now," was all he replied to Putin's question. It was a depressing spectacle for television cameras.
The only acknowledgement of the angry locals was from Tuleyev. "All the opposition forces came immediately to feed on the people's grief," the governor said. "Now there are some 200 people there. They aren't the victims' relatives at all. We work with them, we tell them, 'You can't do it, it's sacrilege when there's a tragedy and you try to resolve your own problems using that.'"
Putin never came out to see the "200 people" -- a confused, enraged, grieving crowd filling the central square. He did, however, lay flowers next to the burned-out shell of the shopping center and visit a hospital. There, he greeted four survivors, including a first responder, and finally caught up with the mayor as he met with a small group of protesters. His exchange with Seredyuk was quick and contemptuous.
The locals were far quieter and more respectful with Putin than in the square. They wanted his promise that the fire would be transparently investigated. They got it. "Don't even doubt it," he said. When the locals asked Putin to fire Tuleyev, however, they got no promises.
Like everyone in Kemerovo, Putin knows what caused the tragedy. "There's no way to get a single piece of paper without paying, but once you pay, you'll have everything signed, that's the trouble," he said during the meeting with officials. The Russian leader is well aware that the system over which he presides is corrupt from top to bottom. But to him, and to every official from the hapless Kemerovo mayor on up, this is just a circumstance for which he bears no responsibility. He, and everyone in his chain of command, can comment on it like any critically-minded citizen.
The result is a "common tragedy" for which no one is to blame -- and a checklist of photo and video opportunities for Putin to follow. Facing an angry crowd is not on that list, nor is genuine reflection about what needs to be fixed on a systemic level. Putin's fourth term in power is already looking like a joyless slog.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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