Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 24

President Vladimir Putin announced during a cabinet meeting today that he had fired Energy Minister Aleksandr Gavrin today and that he had called Primorsky Krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who informed the head of state that he planned to step down. In addition, Putin ordered his chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, to–as the Gazeta.ru website paraphrased the president–resolve the problem of (strengthening the leadership’ of United Energy Systems (UES), the country’s electric power grid, at the next UES shareholders’ meeting. UES, a 51-percent state-owned company, is headed by Anatoly Chubais, while Voloshin is chairman of its board. According to Gazeta.ru, Putin’s comments today mean that Chubais’ removal is a virtual certainty (Gazeta.ru, February 5).

Last week, Putin tipped his hand concerning which heads would role for the ongoing energy crisis in Primorsky Krai, where thousands of residents have gone without electricity and heat this winter. He blamed Nazdratenko’s administration, the Energy Ministry and UES (see the Monitor, February 1). At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko singled out the Lutek company, a UES subsidiary, for blame in the Primorsky energy crisis, accusing it of failing to maintain a reserve of coal for the winter (Kommersant, February 1). These demarches made it clear that both Nazdratenko and his long-time enemy Chubais were in political trouble over the Primorsky crisis. Chubais’ overall weakened political position was underscored when he was forced to accept changes in UES’s charter which will allow a simple majority of its shareholders to choose the company’s head, rather than 75 percent, as the charter currently states. This will allow the state, which owns 51 percent of UES, to choose its head, and thus give Chubais’ main opponents, including Voloshin, a potentially lethal weapon to use against him (NTV, February 4).

It became clear over the weekend that the Kremlin was preparing the groundwork for the removal of Nazdratenko, whose admission to the hospital last week for high blood pressure and/or heart problems was widely interpreted in the Russia press as a sign of his ebbing political fortunes rather than a genuine medical emergency. On February 1, a new federal law came into effect which allows the Russian president to remove a governor suspected of breaking the law from power while a court determines whether the governor is guilty. Meanwhile, the Gazeta.ru website published sections of a letter from Yevgeny Lisov, a deputy head of the presidential administration and chief of the Kremlin’s control department, to Sergei Zhekov, speaker of the Primorsky Krai Duma, detailing the results of a probe into the causes of Primorsky Krai’s energy crisis. In it, Lisov blamed Nazdratenko, his deputies and the heads of Primorsky Krai’s municipalities for this winter’s energy crisis, which has left thousands of residents without heat in bitter Arctic temperatures. The Kremlin’s investigators accused Nazdratenko’s administration of, among other things, having waited until September of last year to begin preparing for the winter heating season, despite the fact that Primorya has experienced energy crises each winter going back a number of years. Lisov also charged that Nazdratenko’s deputies lied to the federal authorities, claiming that the boiler and heating networks and the plumbing systems throughout the region were in 99-100 percent ready for the winter. Lisov also accused Nazdratenko of failing to purchase heating oil last summer, which meant that an extra 300 million rubles (more than US$10 million) had to be spent to buy heating oil via middlemen during the autumn. The region’s administration also violated a presidential decree, Lisov charged, by not holding tenders for the right to sell it coal and heating oil. As a result, three firms suspected of being closely linked to the Nazdratenko administration supplied these resources. Lisov also noted that the regional government failed both to present a budget for 2000 until June 6 of last year and to collect sufficient taxes, causing budget shortfalls, but gave tax breaks to various companies and subsidies to municipalities which failed to carry out repairs on heating systems (Gazeta.ru, February 3).

The release of the Kremlin control department’s investigation findings coincided with comments by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said that “governors who allow an energy crisis of the type which has occurred in Primorya not only can be, but should be, removed from office” (NTV, Gazeta.ru, February 3).

Indeed, it is important to note that Primorya is by no means the only region suffering from cuts in electrical power and heating. Shoigu said over the weekend that he was sorry he had not managed to initiate criminal proceedings against Aleksandr Bokovikov, governor of the Evenkiiskaya Autonomous District, which is also experiencing a deep energy crisis (Gazeta.ru, February 3). Itogi, NTV television’s weekly news analysis program, featured a segment yesterday on the truly horrendous conditions in parts of Chukotka, the region in Russia’s Far North adjacent to Alaska where Roman Abramovich, the infamous oil baron, was elected governor late last year. Residents of some settlements complained not only of cuts in heat and electricity, but a lack of food (NTV, February 4). In the meantime, twenty-seven administrative buildings and fourteen apartments in the Buryatsk Autonomous District remain without heat, while temperatures inside apartment buildings in the Irkutsk Oblast town of Ust-Kutye continue to hover around 10-13 degrees Celsius thanks to boiler breakdowns. The authorities there hope to have the heating equipment repaired by mid-February.