The longtime governor of a Russian region where a huge mall inferno killed dozens of people — most of them children — resigned on Sunday after bitter criticism over his response to the tragedy.
Aman Tuleyev, who had been at the helm of the coal-mining region of Kemerovo since 1997, said in a video address that he could no longer remain at his post with “such a heavy burden” and that quitting was “the only right choice”.
The Kremlin swiftly said that President Vladimir Putin had accepted his resignation.
Tuleyev’s move is unusual as top officials in Russia rarely resign over failings in the emergency response to deadly tragedies.
But the huge fire which ravaged a shopping center in the Siberian industrial city of Kemerovo last Sunday, killing at least 64 people including 41 children, plunged Russia into shock.
Some parents lost all their children, and the youngest victim was a two-year-old boy.
Many people who lost relatives have said they perished because of inaction by firefighters and police lacking the necessary equipment and skills, while some said a cinema door was locked, trapping children inside.
– Kremlin about-face –
Tuleyev, who himself lost a young relative in the blaze, came under heavy criticism for failing to visit the scene of the tragedy in the first few days or meet with angry relatives.
Putin had initially refused to sack the 73-year-old governor despite a rare protest which saw thousands of people pack a square in Kemerovo on Tuesday, the same day Putin traveled to the scene of the tragedy.
Tuleyev apologized to the president over the rally — where protesters also called for Putin’s resignation — calling its organizers troublemakers.
Officials have said that multiple safety rules were violated, the fire alarm system was not working and staff did not follow correct emergency procedures.
The four-story shopping mall was redeveloped several times and previously housed a sweet factory.
Seven people have been arrested in the aftermath of the blaze, investigators said.
The ailing Tuleyev had long been expected to leave the post.
The Kemerovo region of around 2.7 million people has traditionally been considered one of Russia’s most troubled areas and some have feared that Tuleyev’s departure could spark a leadership crisis there.
Tuleyev, who first became governor in the era of president Boris Yeltsin in 1997, is one of Russia’s longest-serving top officials.
He was credited with helping pacify the region which was beset by miners’ strikes in the turbulent 1990s but had come to symbolize the worst excesses of authoritarianism in his later years, critics say.
– ‘Hated by everyone’ –
Lev Shlosberg, a former lawmaker, and rights activist, said Tuleyev “had become senile”, adding that the tragedy had clearly shown that Russia turned into a “mafia” state.
“This is not an emotional or symbolic but a very concrete state of the authorities: they do not represent people and absolutely do not defend the interests of citizens because they do not depend on them in any way and do not hear them,” he wrote in a blog.
“The life of an ordinary man in a mafia state costs nothing.”
“Tuleyev is an example of how one climbs down from the throne after failing to leave on time: disgraced and hated by everyone, with stains of blood and someone else’s tears,” one commentator said on Twitter.
Opposition politician Vladimir Milov said it would take “decades” for the region to recover from Tuleyev’s 21-year rule.
Sergei Tsivilyov, who has been Tuleyev’s deputy since March, has been appointed the acting governor, the Kremlin said.
Tsivilyov is a business partner of one of Putin’s closest lieutenants, Gennady Timchenko, who has been under sanctions imposed on Russia for its role in the Ukraine conflict.
Tsivilyov’s behavior in the aftermath of the blaze has raised eyebrows.
Igor Vostrikov, a man who lost his wife, sister and three children aged two, five and seven years, accused the authorities of treating people “like dirt”.
Tsivilyov responded by accusing him of a “PR stunt” but later went down on his knees in front of the crowd massed in Kemerovo, asking for forgiveness over the fire.
Polls to elect a new governor will be held in September.