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August 11, 2010

Russia's Heat Turns Political

by James Brooke

Russia's two-month heat wave took a political turn as protesters tried to gather in front of Moscow City Hall to demand the resignation of Moscow's mayor.

The sidewalk protest demanding Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's resignation never got off the ground, though, as police moved in swiftly, strong-arming 34 protesters - including the three organizers - into waiting police buses.

Protesters said they were angry the mayor vacationed in Europe for a week while Moscow choked in wood smoke and smog from a surrounding ring of forest fires.

Lawyer Natalya Belaeva said she was not surprised the mayor was on vacation.  She said she was surprised that he came back.  She said while the Mayor was on vacation her neighbor died of the smog, and her own dog died of the smog.

A smog wave is predicted to blanket the city again this weekend.  Fueling the gray haze are 560 forest fires, a number little changed in recent days.  

About 10 percent of the fires are in national parks and reserves, including one that flared up in Moscow's massive Losiny Ostrov park.  Two villages around Moscow were evacuated due to fire danger.

Israel Marques, an American political science student who watched the protest, said his Russian neighbors and university friends were angry about the dense smog that blanketed Moscow.

"Everybody is really ticked off about the smog and it does not help that the government has only gotten really interested in the last few days," said Marques.

Boris Gromov, governor of the region that rings Moscow city, said workers are starting to lay a 300-kilometer network of water pipes to re-flood peat bogs with water.  During the Soviet era the bogs were drained, and the peat was cut for fuel.  Now, underground peat fires are a major source of air pollution.

On the national level, President Dimitri Medvedev announced $1 billion in aid to farmers, and almost $2 billion to purchase new fire trucks and fire-fighting airplanes.

On the sidewalk outside Moscow's City Hall, though, talk kept returning to Mayor Luzhkov, and what protesters said was his lack of leadership during the city's crisis.  Protesters were not pacified by Kremlin news leaks carried in Thursday's papers that criticized the mayor.

Victor Davidoff, a writer who participated in the protest, said his friends were disgusted to learn that the Mayor, a passionate beekeeper, seemed to show more concern for his bees than for Moscow's 11 million residents.  "Everyone knows they evacuated his bees from his bee farm to a safe place, and at the same time he did not come to the city."

Mayor Luzhkov swung into action, asking Russia's Federal Antimonopoly Service to study the price hikes of bread, a national staple.  During the past week, bread prices have jumped by 20 percent.  Some supermarkets have posted signs saying that the price of flour has jumped by as much as 50 percent.

President Medvedev said Russia has lost about one quarter of its crops this year to heat and drought, and the Agriculture Ministry says Russia will export only 10 percent to 20 percent of the amount of grain as last year.