Power troubles snowball in Russia

Record cold has collapsed power grids. Next year could be worse.

The floor in Marina Gladkaya's bedroom is caked with ice, where a hard freeze caused the radiator to burst. Bundled up and wearing insulated boots, Ms. Gladkaya now sleeps on the floor of the sitting room across the hall, where there is a small plug-in heater. Her 12-year-old son gets the couch. Her husband, a sailor, is away.

A thermometer in the "warm" room registers just a few degrees above freezing. "We feel warmer outside on the street," says Gladkaya, watching her breath in the icy apartment air.

Russians in the remote Far East and Siberia are used to extreme cold, which claims scores of lives each year. But temperatures this winter plunged to 67 degrees below zero F., the lowest in half a century. Central heating systems, electrical grids, and fuel-transport and communication lines have buckled under the strain since November, leaving tens of thousands without heat or electricity.

California's rolling blackouts have affected millions and caused estimated billions in damage, but Russians say their problems are of a far more serious - and potentially lethal - magnitude. A political blame-game between Moscow and regional officials has made matters worse.

Analysts have been warning of nationwide infrastructure breakdown in Russia, predicted in 2003. Many say the current energy crisis shows that the breakdown is already under way.

That's how it looks to Gladkaya, too. Her concrete apartment block on Yubilenaya Street is one of 37 buildings in Spassk that have been without heat for the past two weeks. Residents wrapped in layer upon layer of clothes and ankle-length fur coats gather outside to discuss their troubles. "We are ashamed of our lives," says Galina Petrichenko, her face framed by heavy woolen scarves and a hat. "Now it's the 21st century, but we have gone backward. We are living like 100 years ago."

Alarm bells in Moscow

Power outages have plagued this region - seven time zones and 4,000 miles east of Moscow - for years, and disruptions were common even last summer. But the crisis has alarmed Moscow, which in November summoned the Communist governor of Primorskiy Kray, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, to account before the Duma, the lower house of parliament. President Vladimir Putin described the situation then as an "utter disgrace."

More than $17.6 million in emergency funds were dispatched, with little apparent affect. Mr. Putin upbraided ministers at the Kremlin on Jan. 19. "Where are the resources, the reserves, the contingency plans for such a turn of events?" he asked. "Are we to conclude that when the temperature falls to a certain level, we doom people to a slow, freezing death?"

A state of emergency was declared the same day in the town of Artyom, just outside the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Prosecutors have brought more than a dozen criminal cases against local officials, and an energy director in Artyom was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Russia's upper house, the Federation Council, is due to debate the crisis tomorrow, at its first session of the year. And Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu spent the weekend in the remote region, setting up a regional crisis center and promising more aid during stops in small towns near Vladivostok. But problems persist. On Sunday, a defective heater caused a fire in Vladivostok city hall.

Residents of Spassk, a once-prosperous industrial town 150 miles north Vladivostok, say it's typical of the regional breakdown. The cement and tractor factories still operate, blackening the snow in places with their soot. Others have shut down and been looted. Missing manhole covers, sold for scrap, leave treacherous holes in roads and sidewalks.

Inside, many toilets have frozen solid. To prevent radiators from doing the same, some residents plug in jury-rigged electrical-oven elements next to them, held together with tape and frayed wires. Schools have cut back their hours - kindergartens are shut completely - and local clinics have closed their doors.

"In Soviet times, [the heating] was so hot here we had to open our windows," says Zoya Tkachenko, who answers the door in a wool hat and teddy-bear slippers. Today, her windows have a thick layer of frost - on the inside. Half her apartment has heat. Scraping away the frost, she can see where the rest is going: outside. As in many parts of the city, pressurized steam escapes from ruptured pipes, creating large cauliflower-shaped ice flows.

"After perestroika, [the restructuring instituted by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev] the Soviet system fell apart," says Ms. Tkachenko. "Now all the infrastructure is broken, too. They are falling apart together."

Moscow blames the problems on Governor Nazdratenko - whom former President Boris Yeltsin tried to fire several times. Leaders of other regions note they also are beset by a hard winter and have fewer natural resources, but have not collapsed the way Primorskiy Kray has.

Local officials counter that Moscow's federal energy monopoly, Unified Electric Systems (UES), failed to invest funds that would keep systems intact during winter, and permits high oil tariffs. "Moscow created this crisis; UES is responsible" because Moscow officials "don't like" the governor, says Vladivostok Mayor Yurii Kopylov. He calls the result a "crime" and vows to take UES to court.

"They are mixing economics with politics," he says. "UES has paralyzed all Russia, not just [our region]."

UES spokesman Andrei Trapeznikov responds that years of underbilling for energy - under the governor's populist policy of "protecting the people" - has built up nearly $1 billion in debt. Before Nazdratenko came to power, Primorskiy Kray had an energy surplus, the spokesman notes. "Now because of his policies, the whole utilities system there is ruined, and the region has no money to restore it." This "potentially rich" region is "now living under half-feudal rule," he says.

Shared responsibility

But many blame both Moscow and Vladivostok. The governor's rule is marked by crisis management, and "a widespread feeling that he must go ... since he can't cope with anything more sophisticated than banging his fist on the table," says a longtime Russia analyst, who asked not to be named.

Moscow's attitude hasn't changed either, he says. "The Kremlin sees the Far East as a colony, a base for raw materials, and does not invest here. It is part of Russia's imperialist history."

For Alexander Zankov, head of the Energy Resources department in Primorskiy Kray, fingerpointing is a minor concern. "You can't shoot us, like in Stalin's time," he says. "Now I am afraid of next winter. People in Moscow are beginning to understand that this will be the same situation all across Russia, in two or three years. We are just the first."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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