Fiery debate in Moscow over who controls the heat

A cool spring has Muscovites steaming over the low temperature required in buildings. Who decides? A first deputy prime minister.

While pundits fret about the battle between President Boris Yeltsin and parliament, or Russia's mediation role in the war in Yugoslavia, most Muscovites are more concerned with a more mundane sort of power in their lives.

The attempt by lawmakers to oust the president leaves them cold. What gets them hot - literally - are the functionaries who have been switching the Russian capital's central heating on and off.

For the past two months, the freakiest weather in living memory has created a spring of discontent in this metropolis of 10 million people.

First, the city government kept radiators at full blast last month during two weeks when temperatures reached an unseasonably hot 80 degrees F.

Then, just as people grew accustomed to sweating away in T-shirts with the windows open, sudden snows swept in, the flakes surrealistically dusting fresh green leaves.

That's when the heat was abruptly shut off, forcing the entire city to shiver inside dressed in overcoats.

Muscovites normally grumble about their inability to turn up thermostats in their own homes. But this year a historic number of complaints deluged City Hall.

"In the 19th century, people used to say that Russia had two main problems: the roads and fools," says Alexander Kalinin, an official with the National Consumers Fund, a Moscow-based consumers' organization. "Our current problems are fools and monopolism of power."

The term "central heating" takes on a deeper meaning here, with this vestige of Soviet central planning.

Since 1947, the city administration has controlled the temperature in the 45,000 buildings where most Muscovites live and work.

Normally, authorities - or rather Moscow's First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nikolsky, who is in charge of heating - treat the issue dogmatically. The heat is shut off May 1 and restored in September or October when the mercury dips below 18 degrees F.

The city blamed miscalculations by weathermen, not tradition, for this year's heating decisions.

"It wasn't our mistake. The forecasts were wrong," insists Vladimir Manyuk, an official from Mr. Nikolsky's office.

But he did concede that after weeks of public anger - and "floods" of telephone complaints - Moscow's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, took action. He overrode Nikolsky and ordered the heat to be restored.

The incident has intensified public debate over the merits of allowing each building to control its own thermostat.

The city administration defends the current system on economic grounds.

Mr. Manyuk says it is cheaper because it simultaneously provides electricity and heating. The savings allow the city to absorb 60 percent of heating costs to consumers, a subsidy that officials say would be hard to maintain if each building had its own boiler.

But he concedes that the system is weak on flexibility. Because the service is so gigantic - with some steam and hot-water pipes stretching 15 miles underground - it is hard to turn off and on at whim.

That was clear last week, when even a week after the order went out to restore heat, some houses remained cold.

JUST as all the radiators were searing again inside, thermometers outside began to inch back up, and with them public dissatisfaction.

But city officials are playing it safe, preferring to keep the heat on in case there are more late-season cold fronts.

Mr. Kalinin says the city government would be better off relying not on forecasters but on nature. He recites the wisdom of grandmothers, who believe spring weather can be predicted by the blossoming of cherry trees and the budding of oak leaves.

"If you follow these signs, it's unnecessary to listen to special weather analysts," he says.

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