Opposition says Putin law cripples Russia fire-fighting

Tue Aug 3, 2010 3:06pm GMT

By Gleb Bryanski

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Efforts to fight Russia's devastating forest fires have been crippled by a law passed four years ago at the behest of Vladimir Putin and powerful logging interests, environmentalists and politicians said on Tuesday.

More than 40 people have died and about 2,000 families have lost their homes to forest blazes stoked by Russia's worst heatwave in decades. Russia's leaders have declared a state of emergency in seven provinces.

But critics blame the lower house of parliament (Duma) for rushing through a new Forest Code in 2006 on Putin's orders. This disbanded a centralised system of forest protection and turned the country's vast forests into a virtual no-man's land.

Russia's forests cover 809 million hectares, twice the size of the European Union landmass, and the oxygen they produce is vital to helping the planet contain climate change.

"There was never such a mess in Russian forests as there is now," said Gennady Gudkov, a deputy from the Just Russia party and one of 102 MPs who wrote an open letter to Putin in 2006 asking him to delay the new code.

"In our parliament everything is done quickly. If the government wants to push something through there is no way to block it," said Gudkov. The code took effect in 2007 and handed responsibility for forest protection to regional authorities.

Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday told President Dmitry Medvedev that 155,000 people across the country were involved in fighting the fires. He said 360 villages have been saved from advancing blazes in the last 24 hours.

Officials disclosed for the first time that the forest fires had destroyed 13 hangars full of aircraft and equipment at a naval base outside Moscow last Thursday. The Prosecutor- General's office refused to give details but news website lifenews.ru said that 200 aircraft had been reduced to ashes.   Continued...

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