Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 7

January has ushered in a new stage in Primorsky Krai’s energy crisis (see the Monitor, December 1, 2000; January 4, 9.) For several months now, events in that region of Russia’s Far East have been the focus of media attention. For the press, the region epitomizes the desperate plight of Russia’s provinces. The culprit is the lack of understanding between the regional and municipal authorities, on the one hand, and the energy providers, on the other. Local budgets are unable to shoulder their full share of the bill for heating and lighting, and the utility companies respond by reducing supplies. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that part of the cost of heating homes and apartments is supposed to come out of local budgets, while the residents foot the remainder of the bill. This means that, even if ordinary people pay their utility bills conscientiously, they are nonetheless likely to have their services cut off.

Fuel crises hit several Russian regions in the final months of 2000, but none received as much publicity as that in Primorsky Krai. True, the situation in the krai had begun to improve by the end of the year. The power cuts which had endangered the lives of thousands of inhabitants eased and the uproar subsided. On January 3, however, the situation took a fresh turn for the worse. Power cuts in several parts of the krai raised the number of people living without heating from 4,500 to 14,000. The press secretary of Dalenergo, the krai’s electricity utility, reported that the region had only three-quarters of the electricity it needed. According to one explanation, the crisis was caused by an accident at the Primorsky power plant (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 3). According to Dalenergo’s chief engineer, the power station had been quite unprepared for the winter season. It had no reserves of fuel and supplies of fuel oil, necessary for igniting coal, were also exhausted (Russian agencies, January 4).

Local officials promised that normal electricity supplies would be restored within 24 hours, but this did not happen (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 3). Soon the entire krai was facing a total blackout. Yuri Kopylov, mayor of the regional capital Vladivostok, warned that electricity cuts were creating a threat that the pipes supplying the krai’s towns with hot water would freeze and burst. The authorities in the Pacific port of Nakhodka declared a state of emergency (Russian agencies, January 4-5). On January 5, Anatoly Kopsov, deputy chairman of United Energy Systems (UES), Russia’s electricity grid, promised that energy would be restored to the Primorsky Krai within 48 hours. He said some districts might still experience blackouts after that period but insisted that these would not be “acute” (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 5). Kopsov met his promise, and by January 8 the situation had begun to improve.

Yesterday, however, the region began to experience fresh blackouts, reportedly caused by a halt in coal shipments from neighboring Siberia due to Arctic temperatures there. At the same time, Primorsky Krai was hit by a powerful winter storm.

As a result, tension is growing in the region. For several years now the krai and its governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, have been under attack by the Kremlin. Federal officials have more than once discussed the possibility that Nazdratenko might be removed from office. Only now, however, has President Putin secured the legal right to remove regional heads. Last year’s round of regional elections ended with the federal center’s failing to score a decisive victory over the regional elites. Will Putin use this new opportunity to show regional elites all over the country that he has the ability not only to acquire new powers, but to use them as well?

Certainly, the attacks on Nazdratenko show no sign of easing. The governor is being portrayed in the national media as little short of a monster, who through his own fault leaves his region frozen and without electricity. Konstantin Pulikovsky, presidential representative in the Far Eastern federal district, has identified Nazdratenko as personally responsible for the crisis. “This governor is feverishly wondering whom he has offended–the president, the administration, Pulikovsky,” Pulikovsky said. “It is the voters he has offended, the people, the very times in which we live” (NTV, December 25, 2000). During a recent visit to Magnitogorsk, Putin declared that those who, “like some of those in the Far East, think only about themselves, about making money,” would receive “an appropriate response from the state” (Russian agencies, December 25). As the Monitor has already reported, 15 deputies from Primorsky Krai Duma have already appealed to Putin to remove Nazdratenko from office, and one deputy, Vladimir Gildenberg, declared that Putin would sign the decree sacking Nazdratenko by January 16 (Russian agencies, January 4).

Nazdratenko, meanwhile, is trying to convince the world that he is invulnerable. The governor has welcomed the decision of the watchdog Audit Chamber to probe the situation in his region. He has gone on the offensive, pointing out that last time the Audit Chamber conducted an audit of his krai, they discovered that the federal authorities had failed, during the course of two years, to pay some 592 million rubles (around US$23 million) that the center owed the region (Russian agencies, January 5). In 1997, Nazdratenko successfully resisted strenuous efforts by President Boris Yeltsin and UES chairman Anatoly Chubais to oust him from power. It remains to be seen whether, in Putin, Nazdratenko has met his match.