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Russia's Heat Wave Wilts Crops, Nation

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James Brooke

Russia's worst drought in 130 years became a political issue Friday as the Kremlin held an emergency meeting to combat the impacts of  a month long heat wave that is shriveling crops, forcing up food prices, and causing hundreds of drownings as Russians jump into rivers to escape heat funneled up from North Africa.

"Stop the panic," Russia's top official for agriculture commanded Russians on Friday as the nation faced a fourth week of baking hot temperatures more normally associated with North Africa.

With crops failing across Russia's Black soil belt, and vegetable gardens wilting outside suburban dachas, first deputy prime minister Victor Zubkov warned against price gouging, saying "There are absolutely no grounds for price hikes of food."

As Russia struggles in the embrace of the worst drought since 1880, the Kremlin worries that food prices will shoot up, blowing apart inflation targets for this year, a year before parliamentary elections.

Russia's Grain Producers Union recently forecast a 20 percent drop in the nation's grain harvest. Coming from the world's fourth largest wheat producer, this report contributed to a 25-percent spike in world wheat prices in July. To ease pressure on prices, the Kremlin started last week to sell grain from its massive stockpiles.

Gennady Yeseleyev, deputy director of Russia's Federal Weather service, warns of the drought's impact.

While farmers' combines harvest at night to avoid mechanical breakdowns from the soaring heat, city trucks in Moscow water streets by day to prevent asphalt from melting. As hot temperatures afflict Moscow, portable air conditioners, fans and inflatable pools are flying off the shelves.

After a Japanese tourist died from heat stroke near Red Square, the Kremlin, suspended a weekly changing of the guard ceremony. After two men died of heat-related causes in Moscow's metro, a consumer group sued the transit operator to bring down temperatures to the legal maximum of 32 degrees centigrade.

In St. Petersburg, almost on the same latitude as Anchorage Alaska, residents are cooling off by jumping into normally icy canals. Across Russia, almost 2,000 people have drowned since June, well higher than normal. In one tragic case, six children at a summer camp drowned because  camp counselors were following a Russian summer tradition of trying to cool off by drinking alcohol.

On Friday, Galina Petrovna, a 64-year-old Moscow nanny, let her two year old charge cool off with a dip in a public fountain. On Sunday, her employers are going to Italy - to cool off.

Her employers also will be escaping a growing haze from peat moss bog fires now ringing Moscow, Europe's most populous city. She says, they are in shock - they say we have hot weather, but not like you have here.

Across Russia fires are running at twice the rate of normal.  

To further reduce pollution - and to cut road rage - General Victor Kiryanov, of the Russian Road police asks drivers to stay at home.

He says the heat affects both drivers and police inspectors. People are too tired, irritated, and aggressive. And this is exactly what makes driving dangerous. So, he said,  he would like to address all drivers now - if you have a chance, stay at home or at work, don't use your cars, please.

But the credibility of government officials was dented this week when journalists from Saratov, one of Russia's most severely drought stricken regions, recognized their governor in a You Tube video of Russians detained on July 9th on a yacht near Sicily. Italian police released the group, saying they did not find what they were looking for - leaders of the Russian mafia.

That Friday, the official schedule of the Governor, Pavel Ipatov, had him in Moscow, meeting with vice prime minister Zubkov to win drought relief for his constituents. Later, Ipatov, a Kremlin appointee, admitted that he took a short Italian holiday.

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