Kazakhstan has responded to a deadly blaze at a shopping mall in neighboring Russia by ordering a sweep of safety inspections at its own entertainment and retail centers.
Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev said on March 27 that the events in Kemerovo, which claimed the lives of at least 64 people, should serve as a lesson to Kazakhstan.
Sagintayev’s orders look like an exercise in damage control. On the day before he spoke, KTK television station cited Interior Ministry officials as saying that they “would not be conducting urgent inspections of shopping centers, even after the tragedy in Russia.”
“According to the scheduled checks [that have already been undertaken], everything in the [shopping centers] is in order,” the ministry said, swatting away concerns.
Members of parliament told KTK that safety inspectors are hogtied by regulations limiting them to one check per year and requirements to grant businesses at least one month’s notice. That rule is a dramatic declaration of surrender in the government’s battle against corruption as it was ostensibly adopted in response to routine complaints from businesses about inspectors abusing their position to demand bribes.
Deputies believe that the bulk of shopping centers in Kazakhstan pose a risk of one kind or another.
The head of fire safety company RD Fire Group, Askar Abenov, told KTK that many commercial centers in Kazakhstan are built from non-fire resistant materials and are not equipped with fire-fighting systems. Spaces that should be reserved for emergency exits are often rented out to stallholders, Abenov said.
Unhappy with the government’s reaction so far, some members of the public have taken it upon themselves to do their own inspections. After visiting the Mega Silkway mall in the capital, Astana, Dzhokhar Utebekov, a lawyer, posted pictures to his Facebook page showing blocked exits. He said a security guard told him the doors had been locked for the winter. This was a chilling discovery considering it was a similar oversight that led to such a large loss of life in Kemerovo.
And it is not as if Kazakhstan is any stranger to similar tragedies. In November 2016, a fire at the Almaty Towers shopping center in the business capital, Almaty, claimed six lives. Investigators found at the time that the mall had violated safety regulations.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.