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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crisis of Power in Frostbitten Far East

RUDNY, Far East — Three weeks ago, Olesya Popava was awakened in the predawn darkness by the sobs of her 8-year-old daughter Nikka, huddled against her in the bed in their three-room apartment.

"My feet hurt,'' the third-grader wailed.

Her mother took one look and ran to a neighbor's to summon an ambulance.

"They were blue and swollen,'' Popava said. "The doctor said it is a reaction to the cold and the girl should be kept in warm conditions — or she could lose both her feet.''

A simple enough instruction, it would seem. But not in this mining village of 3,000 nestled in the hills of the Far East Primorye region. There is no heat here — not even when the temperature falls to minus 25 degrees Celsius, as it did last Saturday. The school closed Nov. 27 after four students suffered frostbite and frozen pipes burst in the gymnasium. The preschool shut down when the pet fish froze in their bowls.

In a country blessed with one of the world's biggest oil and gas reserves, Primorye residents have suffered from severe fuel shortages for four years in a row, victims of what critics call staggering mismanagement and corruption in the administration of the region's governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko.

Political observers in Primorye and elsewhere in Russia will scrutinize President Vladimir Putin's response to the crisis to see if he is as willing to take on powerful governors.

"It is a check of whether [Putin's] intentions are serious, when he declared he would follow the dictatorship of law,'' said Yury Rybalkin, head of the Primorye legislature's economic committee.

"If he makes this decision, it will make other criminal, lazy officials in the regions start thinking about their deeds. And this will be the beginning of the stabilization of the social, political and economic situation in our country.''

An estimated 33,000 residents in this region of 2.2 million people on the Sea of Japan are trying to warm themselves with small electric heaters and the steam from electric tea kettles.

When they plug in too many heaters, as they do daily in places like Rudny, they are left without heat — or light.

So far, Putin has confined his attacks on Nazdratenko to words.

He recently characterized the lack of heat in Primorye as an "utter disgrace.''

The Emergency Situations Ministry set last Friday as a deadline for the heat to be turned on, and it was restored to some areas.

But in a half-dozen other towns and villages, specialists said they did not know how long it would take to repair the pipes that had burst and boilers that had cracked from the cold.

Cold is only Primorye's latest problem.

Doctors and teachers have not been paid since August, newspapers are full of reports of killings attributed to organized crime, and foreign investors have fled.

Elections, at least to the 700,000 citizens of the capital, Vladivostok, are a sham.

Businessmen, judges and journalists say Nazdratenko rules like a dictator, intimidating and threatening all who dare oppose him.

Meanwhile, the region's economy, full of promise in the early 1990s, is crumbling. Investors say the Far East Shipping Co., one of Primorye's biggest companies, has lost $500 million — fully half its assets — under managers backed by Nazdratenko.

At a news conference this month, Putin's envoy to the Far East, Konstantin Pulikovsky, said "the bad work of the Primorye territory governor's team'' was directly to blame for the situation.

"This is not an energy problem or a fuel crisis,'' he said. "It is a crisis of power.''

Asked as he was leaving a banquet at a Vladivostok hotel why so many people lacked heat, Nazdratenko paused just long enough to reply: "There are not as many as you think.''

He told other reporters that no more than 800 families lacked heat.

Nazdratenko blames the crisis on a post-September rise in fuel prices and the central government's failure to pay its debts to the region.

Putin's envoy, Pulikovsky, contends the Far East's 10 other regions are all owed about the same amount — $7 million — but were able to operate their boilers.

He said Nazdratenko should have signed supply contracts earlier, before the oil companies jacked up their rates.

Now, authorities must not only pay high prices, but are struggling to repair many pipes that burst and boilers that cracked in the cold.

The damage to the infrastructure is so extensive that despite the arrival of fuel trucks and the Kremlin's order to restore heat by Dec. 15, tens of thousands of people are still suffering in freezing temperatures.

Last week, the official in charge of heating one city outside Vladivostok was arrested, and the administrator responsible for the district that includes Rudny was fired.