KRYMSK, Russia (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin flew to southern Russia on Sunday for the second time in eight days to meet survivors of deadly floods, determined to dispel an image of leading a weak state two months after returning to the presidency.
Dressed casually in a blue-and-white check shirt, Putin chatted with residents of the town of Krymsk whose homes were damaged in floods that killed 171 people in Russia’s traditional “bread basket” area known as the Kuban on July 7.
“We need to help people in the true sense of the word - to help them clear their homes and lands,” Putin said, promising to send 5,000 servicemen to the region to help provide food, water, medicine and tents for the needy.
Lines of military trucks were already parked outside the mountain town of 57,000 people near the Black Sea, where most of the deaths happened.
In the centre, white tents have been erected to treat and shelter survivors, and bulldozers were still clearing mud and debris shortly before midnight.
Television footage of the visit was beamed across Russia, and was clearly intended to depict Putin as in control and playing the role of the nation’s leader.
Local authorities have been accused by residents of failing to issue proper flood warnings, and Putin wants to deflect any blame after being accused of reacting too slowly to disasters soon after he was first elected president in 2000.
Putin often goes to the scene of big natural or man-made disasters but it is unusual for him to go twice in such a short time, underlining his nervousness about his image following opposition protests that have undermined his authority.
Just how effective his visit was remained unclear. He had met only officials and not flood victims during his first visit a few hours after the flooding began last week. But some residents remained unimpressed on Sunday.
“Putin visited our street but didn’t talk to us. He didn’t talk to any of the people here. He was surrounded by guards and they didn’t let anyone near him,” Galina Matsko, a shop manager in her early 40s, said outside her one-storey home - two of its walls ruined and a wardrobe propping up the roof.
Her neighbour, Sergei Shamanov, said a local official had derided Putin’s appearance after he was splattered by mud. He had defended the former KGB spy, saying: “Whatever has happened here, he is still our president.”
Shamanov, 50, survived by scrambling on to the roof of his low house and then climbing into a tree where he clung for six hours until rescue workers found him at 9.00 a.m. on the day of the flooding, which followed a month of heavy rain.
What is clear is that the people of Krymsk are dissatisfied with the lack of warning they received about the floods and the slowness of the clear-up operation.
“We are all ill,” Matsko said. “We’re just going to have to get over our illness and fix everything. We won’t be able to go to work.”
Putin returned to the presidency on May 7 and has faced months of protests, mainly in big cities, against his 12 years in power as president or prime minister. His opponents fear political and economic stagnation under him and accuse him of trying to stifle free speech, civil society and dissent.
Although the protests are not now as big or as frequent as they were six months ago, he can ill afford to make mistakes in the handling of the disaster or allow his popularity to slip in the provinces, where he retains strong support.
The president, 59, barely smiled during his conversations with the survivors but showed sympathy with their plight.
“Are you hungry?” he was shown on television asking a woman in a headscarf and pink top, her daughter clinging to her back.
She replied that she was not but complained that she had received no official warning about the flooding.
“Do you need money?” Putin asked, and proposed increasing the various sums of compensation on offer for survivors whose homes and belongings were damaged or lost.
Putin also offered at a meeting with local officials to evacuate children, the elderly and pregnant women from the flood-affected areas, Russian news agencies said.
Some residents still say the wave of water that hit was so high that a local reservoir must have been opened but national and regional officials have repeatedly denied this.
Only one local leader is known to have been fired although the government has accused officials on the ground of making mistakes. Putin told ministers to report back to him on the disaster by the end of the week when he met them last Monday.
Putin was accompanied by Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov who said electricity, water and gas had been restored in Krymsk.
Putin wants to ensure he does not repeat his mistakes of August 2000, when he was on holiday when a nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea with 118 men on board.
He was accused by media of responding too slowly when all those on board were confirmed dead and later acknowledged it was a public relations mistake not to return sooner from holiday.
Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff and Pravin Char